Derrida is dead

Perhaps no philosopher of the 20th century caused more of an uproar in the U.S. than Jacques Derrida. Though he was not religious in any standard sense, he understood a great deal about what it means to be religious. Though he was often described in the English-speaking press as arrogant, he was in fact quiet and kind. I will miss him. For me to call him a friend would be to stretch the truth far too far. But we were acquaintances, and I was always impressed not only by his great intelligence, but also by his civility. Some years ago I founded a journal for the history of philosophy. Given who I was not, there was no need for him to take notice of it, much less to be involved with it. But he agreed to be on its board of editors and several times gave helpful suggestions in addition to the use of his name. And he never failed to recognize me when we met, a small thing but something very pleasing to me. In the end, philosophically I am not a Derridean. I remain in the camp of Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, I owe and respect Jacques Derrida a great deal. I will miss his “presance.”

Oddly, in spite of my experience with Derrida and what I find in his writings, he has often been vilified in the United States as a nihilist and a relativist. Neither was true, but both his adherents and his detractors often agree that he was both. As is often the case when philosophers from other contexts are adopted by someone outside that context, Derrida was profoundly misunderstood by most American academics who talked about his work. (See my “Deconstruction” for a brief discussion of why I think that is so. The essay has been around for a while, so I would revise it were I offering it for publication today. But it does a reasonable job of saying what I want to say, so I leave it as it has been for a while.)

Among other things, Derrida helped me understand for the first time why negative theology is so important to theology. And he showed me not only why Levinas is an important thinker, but where to look for the problems in Levinas.

You can find Derrida’s obituary in Le Monde. Here is a rough translation:

Le Monde, 9 October 2004

The philosopher Jacques Derrida is dead

Jacques Derrida was the French philosopher best known to foreigners, especially those in the United States, for his concept of “deconstruction.�

Derrida, the French philosopher most commented on and most translated in the world in recent years, particularly in the United States, died Friday night at the age of 74. He was celebrated for his concept of “deconstruction.�

According to those close to him, Derrida, author of some 80 works, died “without suffering� in a Paris hospital where he had been for about three weeks following a bout with pancreatic cancer.

He was the last survivor of the thinkers of the 60s, known as “the thinkers of 68″ (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, etc.), adversaries of the notion of the “subject.â€?

Born 15 July 1930 in El Bar (Algeria) into a generally leftist transplanted Jewish colonial family, in 1950 he entered the Ecole Normale Superieur. He then became an assistant at Harvard (United States) and afterward taught at the Sorbonne. In 1965 he became a professor of philosopher at the Ecole Normale, where he served as “cayman� (director of studies). Later he split his work between Paris and several of the most prestigious American universities.

In 1982, he was imprisoned for several days in a Czech prison for his support of the dissident intellectuals of Charter 77.

The inventor of “deconstruction�

Derrida took on a vast critical reflection on the institution of philosophy and its teaching. In 1983, he was a creator of the International College of Philosophy, over which he presided until 1985. In 1988, with Jacques Bouveresse and at the initiative of the Minister of Education, he directed the commission on philosophy, part of a team reviewing the content of secondary education instruction.

Following this, he taught again in the United States, then at the Ecole des hautes études in sciences sociales in Paris.

“I have never stayed long in the United States; my clearest intellectual time has not been spent there. That said, however, the reception of my work there was more generous and more attentive, and I encountered less censure, obstruction, and conflict than in France� he declared recently to the newspaper “l’Humanité.�

Among his numerous books, which constitute a dialogue without concession with western metaphysics, are Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy, Glas, The Truth in Painting, For Paul Celan, Spirit, Heidegger and the Question, Inventions of the Other, Law and Philosophy, Specters of Marx, Aporias and Resistances of Psychoanalysis.

Derrida, with a thick head of white hair, proposed to begin with the classic texts of philosophy and to deconstruct them to reveal the presuppositions of language as a way of undoing a dominant system of thought in their interior.

“Deconstruction is to take an idea, an institution, or a value and to understand its mechanisms by peeling away the cement that constitutes it. Beside that—which may intrigue some and make others run away—it is a philosophy that can help us understand society� said Franz-Olivier Glesbert when he introduced Derrida on television in 2002. That appearance on television was, in itself, an event for this reserved but open person, who was not well-acquainted with the small screen and who had, for a long time, refused to be photographed.

Derrida was a member of the committee that sustained Lionel Jospin in 1995. A grandfather and the husband of a psychoanalyst, he had a son with [his first wife,] Sylviane Agacinski, [presently] the wife of Jospin.

He did not vote on the 21st of April 2001, a sign of his “ill will toward all of the candidates.� “If, after a long time, my texts have been considered to be politically neutral—though my participation on the left has been well-known—that is because, always attentive to political matters, I do not find myself [. . .] in the dominant political system� he confided at the beginning of 2004. [One need not be on the political left to understand that sentiment.]

53 comments for “Derrida is dead

  1. October 10, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Holy cow Jim. I really ought to check T&S before I post anything. I wonder if I should bother deleting my entry now. No, it’s too late. Besides, I’ve got a link to my own blog post on Derrida there. Check it out Jim; I quote extensively from the same essay on deconstruction that you link to.

  2. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 1:21 am

    Russell, I’m glad I read your comment before I responded to your post. Thank you for the extra post on Jacques. I think he would find that coincidence amusing, and I was touched by what you said there and even more by your use of my essay in your personal blog.

  3. pete
    October 10, 2004 at 2:02 am

    The movie “Derrida” is a great little uptempo biography that played at Sundance a couple of years ago (‘sure beats trying to wade through Derrida’s translated writings). I was really hoping that it would come to the BYU International Cinema, and thought it would since the English dept. virtually worships the man. But lately I am hearing that the International Cinema program no longer exists. True? Who voted to defund it? Ok, just kidding about defunding. Seriously, though, has anyone seen “Derrida” or the other Derrida film biography? And maybe a better question, in the spirit of “the book is better,” can Jim F. or anyone else recommend 100 pages of Derrida that gives a reasonably clear picture of his core ideas from his own pen (translated to English), or must we only deconstruct them?

  4. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 2:04 am

    A couple of corrections: (1) The English Department at BYU does have two or three (or perhaps fewer, but not more) professors who are interested in Derrida. They definitely do not worship him, neither as a department nor as individuals. (2) I can’t account for the rumors you’ve heard, but the International Cinema program remains alive and well under the direction of Professor Travis Anderson.

    I’ve seen “Derrida” and enjoyed it. BYU has it available for use in classes.

    Read my short essay on deconstruction, referenced above, and you’ll see why no one can recommend “100 pages of Derrida that gives a reasonably clear picture of his core ideas from his own pen.” Perhaps his clearest book was his first (Speech and Phenomena), but many of his later books, such as The Gift of Death are also clear–assuming that you know the philosophical background against which they are written.

  5. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 2:22 am

    A short book that is sort-of by Derrida because it is the result of a round table discussion in which he participated: John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell. The discussion is the first part of the book; the second part of the book is Jack’s attempt to explain Derrida’s thinking “in a nutshell.” It is, overall, a good explanation, though Jack sometimes is unnecessarily overtaken by the muse.

  6. October 10, 2004 at 4:13 am

    I’d actually say the best “intro” to Derrida is Dermot Moran’s book Introduction to Phenomenology. The book is, as the title attests, actually a kind of overview and introduction to phenomenology. But the 40 or so pages devoted to Derrida are thereby much clearer because he places Derrida within the phenomenological tradition. It is a great book if you are just interested in phenomenology as well. I’d say an other good introduction is Ernst Behler’s Confrontations: Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche which does a nice job of explaining the “double” in each figure that Derrida sees, as well as doing a remarkable job explaining the Gadamer – Derrida debate that Russell mentioned over in his blog. For those more willing to get into the nitty-gritty Lawlor’s Derrida and Husserl is a fantastic careful analysis of how Derrida reads phenomenology and the influences on him. Some of the figures were people I didn’t know about, but one can quickly see how Derrida’s project is oriented. Fantastic book, although don’t come to it without having some background in phenomenology. While I’m not sure I agree with his readings of Derrida, I have to admit one of the earliest books on him I found helpful was Christoper Norris’ Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. His What’s Wrong with Postmodernism is good as well and tends to attack many of the misreadings of Derrida made popular in the postmodern tradition.

  7. October 10, 2004 at 4:14 am

    Oh, btw, I suspect the only ones who might be interested already visit the site, but I have up a bit on Derrida at my blog as well.

  8. October 10, 2004 at 7:48 am

    Clark, great post, and thanks for providing a links round-up. Interesting how someone as familiar with and as sympathetic to pragmatism as yourself can have such a different assessment and appreciation of Derrida than that of the pragmatist posers I mention in my post, Rorty and Fish. No doubt you’ve written on that subject before; I’ll have to poke around your blog a little.

    Jim, thanks for your comments also; Clark and I both obviously owe you a great debt, and not just in terms of our familiarity with Derrida. If you have the time, and since you’ve written on both Gadamer and Derrida, I’d be interested in hearing a more detailed reaction from you as regards my particular assessment of philosophical hermeneutic’s vs. deconstruction’s use of Heidegger’s ontological insights. (Maybe such comments would be more appropriate over there than here.)

    Oh, and regarding John Caputo…

    “It is, overall, a good explanation, though Jack sometimes is unnecessarily overtaken by the muse.”

    Uh, only sometimes?

  9. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Clark: Your recommendations are exactly right, though I suspect most who are looking for a short introduction will balk at reading Moran, Behler, or Lawlor. I’d forgotten about Norris’s book, though I used to recommend it regularly. Thanks for mentioning it. (By the way, an interesting bit of trivia: Norris is the cousin of Leslie Norris, emeritus poet in residence at BYU.)

    Russell: I was trying to give Caputo the benefit of the doubt.

    I’ll see if I can say something about hermeneutics vs. deconstruction, though I’ll probably post it at your site rather than here. If I do write something up–and it is a question of time rather than inclination–I’ll post a link to your site here.

  10. October 10, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    I don’t think Rorty is a pragmatist – especially of late. However even when he was a pragmatist he was much more in the Dewey tradition with its intrumentalism than the Peirce or perhaps even James traditions, depending upon how you read James. Peirce in particular is a realist and adopts a rather thorough going realism towards universals. Indeed the father of pragmatism is perhaps closest to the scholastic realists of the medieval era than what we find in Rorty.

    On the other hand, Rorty has oft said that he has no disagreements with Putnam’s writings and that Putnam’s position and his are nearly the same. Yet I read Putnam as a realist more after the Peirce mold – especially in his later writings.

    I seem to recall Davidson saying that Rorty had finally ‘fessed up and doesn’t call himself a pragmatist anymore though. I may be wrong on that. I’d have to check to be sure.

    Regarding Caputo, I think the big difference between how he reads Derrida and how Derrida reads Derrida is the difference between the khora and the hyperousia. Caputo has been fairly explicit attributing to Derrida the hyperousia at times (basically the neoPlatonic One) whereas I think Derrida has gone to great lengths to deny this. Personally I think differance is closer to matter in Plotinus than the One of Plotinus. But that has been the debate the last decade or so.

  11. Kaimi
    October 10, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    I wonder if there is any cosmic significance to the passage, this same week, of both Rodney Dangerfield and Jacques Derrida. Perhaps the fact that Derrida, like Dangerfield, never got any respect?

    Also, the Times of London has a fun little piece. It starts: “Can there be any certainty in the death of Jacques Derrida ? The obituarists’ objective attempts to place his life in a finite context are, necessarily, subject to epistemic relativism, the idea that all such scientific theories are mere “narrationsâ€? or social constructions.”

    See LINK.

  12. October 10, 2004 at 9:28 pm

    In a sense there is a lot of truth in the question of whether Derrida is “dead” in the sense of finished, complete, and so forth. After all people will still be taking up his projects, reading new life into his works. In a very real sense, he (or anyone else who remains within discourse) never dies.

  13. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 10:57 pm

    On the other hand, the obituarist is clearly someone who doesn’t know beans about Derrida so was unable to do anything but fall back on lame references to Sokal and irresponsible false descriptions of Derrida’s ideas. Perhaps Kaimi is right about the link between Dangerfield and Derrida.

  14. pete
    October 11, 2004 at 3:23 am

    Jim F:

    Thank you for your responses and suggestions on Derrida/deconstruction reading. I was joking, of course, about Derrida being worshipped at BYU. Although if we are “deconstructing” can we really say he is not “worshipped”? What does “worship” mean, etc., etc.

    I really enjoyed your essay. The idea that it is a mistake to “believe that our understanding of the world is always derivative from our language” is one of the things I enjoy most about Levinas, Husserl, Heideggar and the continental tradition generally. When we LDS talk about revelation, inspiration, the Holy Ghost, the Light of Christ, and faith itself aren’t we mostly talking about extralingual information that nevertheless conveys reality? I’m sure English professors across the country would scoff at the idea of Derrida as a faith promoter, but then, how can they scoff at anything?

  15. Rob
    October 11, 2004 at 11:32 am

    And”Superman” Christopher Reeves just died as well. Should be some interesting receptions happening in the spirit world…Surely Rodney has his respect, Christopher can walk again, and Jaques…maybe found his center?

  16. Jim F
    October 11, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    Pete, I wouldn’t take the general consensus of American English professors as my guide to understanding Derrida.

    Standing in the hall of the Jesse Knight Humanities Building at BYU this morning, waiting to meet someone, I overheard one student explaining deconstruction to another: “it’s about letting go of all values and presuppositions.” After a few minutes, I couldn’t bear it any more and said, “No, that’s not what it is about.” “Then what is it about?” he asked. I said a couple of things, though I’m sure they didn’t make any sense. I don’t know any 30-second sound bite answers to the question that will do the job.

    Discussion of postmodernism, deconstruction, etc. has become exactly like discussion of politics: we manufacture slogans both to describe our own position and that of our opponents, then we attach ourselves to those slogans–and position ourselves against our opponent’s slogans–as if the slogans had meaning. What we rarely do, in either politics or discussions of deconstruction, is think carefully about the questions and come to answers without the slogans. I don’t think that is a new problem, but it is disheartening when it you encounter it.

  17. David King Landrith
    October 11, 2004 at 9:44 pm

    Derrida got quite a lot of attention when I was at BYU. I always attributed this to the “I understand something you don’t” approach to knowledge adopted by many practitioners of the restored gospel.

    I took Dr. Anderson’s class on Derrida while I was at BYU. Difficult topic. Only one thing came through very clearly. In practice (and, perhaps, quite apart from his philosophy) Derrida wrote in such a way as to make it impossible to criticize him; any objection seemed to be evidence that you simply didn’t understand. This is not the outlook of a serious intellect.

  18. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 12:13 am

    David King Landrith: Can you give an example of something Derrida wrote that made it impossible to object? I can’t think of what you might have in mind, and–though I agree that many of his texts, especially those in the middle part of his career, are quite difficult–I have never seen anything like what you describe, arguments or claims for which any objection is evidence that the one making the objections doesn’t understand.

    More important to me: What is the “‘I understand something that you don’t’ approach to the gospel”? Since I am one who claims to understand Derrida reasonably well, I am more than just curious as to what you mean by this. It sounds like you are saying that members of the Church like Anderson and me do something wrong by claiming to understand Derrida, but I’m not completely sure what we are accused of. Are you saying that we exclude other members by that claim? That we assert authority by claiming to know something someone else cannot? In other words, are you accusing us of priestcraft? If so, you owe it to us and to others who read your accusation to be specific about that accusation. If not, you owe it to us to make the accusation clear.

    I believe that I understand Derrida and that he has both interesting and important things to say. I believe that the questions he raises are important ones, though ultimately I think that others’ answers are better. I also believe that Derrida’s work is difficult to understand, especially if you don’t have the background in Continental philosophy that he was assuming of his Continental philosophical audience. (After all, he wrote in French for French audiences, not in English for American ones.) But I also believe that the average college student can understand that work, assuming that he or she is willing to put in the work required. People may not be willing, and I wouldn’t blame them for not being willing. Not everyone is interested in philosophy, much less in the questions Derrida raises. But all philosophy should no more be immediately accessible to those who come to it than should all quantum physics. Thus, to say that I understand Derrida is not to say that I am smarter than others or that I have special insight. It is only to say that I’ve been willing to put in the work required.

  19. October 12, 2004 at 12:36 am

    I’d second Jim’s comments about Derrida writing in an “unfalsifiable” fashion. Certainly the debate over neoPlatonism and Derrida is an example where many disagreed with Derrida’s conclusions. (The argument ended up being about the hyperousia or the khora as the nothing of differance)

    In his early works people disagree with him quite frequently. His texts are fairly clear, if you are familiar with the sources.

    Certainly some of his other works are more demonstrative and playful. But that doesn’t entail one can’t argue with him. It might affect how, with those particular texts, one does differ with him. But that is an other matter.

  20. Jim F
    October 12, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    I’ve been asked who “the dissident intellectuals of Charter 77” were. For a short explanation of them and their movement, as well as the declaration of the charter, see

  21. Rosalynde Welch
    October 12, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    I accidentally posted my previous comment on Derrida in Russell’s thread, although I was mostly responding to Jim. I will add here something that I forgot to write before: I think it’s incredibly cool that you knew Derrida personally, and the fact that he was so personally kind to you and involved with your journal speaks highly not only of him, but of the quality of your work. And I understand why you are defensive of his work. My PhD advisor was (is) very well-known in my field, and although I differ from him on certain points, I’m sure I would respond very heatedly should I hear his name or work treated unfairly.

  22. David King Landrith
    October 12, 2004 at 8:36 pm

    Jim F.
    I want to start out by being perfectly clear: Derrida becomes impossible to criticize in practice; whether or not his philosophy is innately unassailable is an entirely separate issue. Therefore, your request for an example of an objection-proof writing by Derrida seems beside the point. Since I anticipate that your first reaction to my example may well be to criticize it, your request may also be a bit self serving (of course, I could always respond that you didn’t understand…).
    On the other hand, in practice, analytic philosophers who offered serious (and often rigorous) criticism were usually greeted with pedantic disdain; most notably, John Searle. W.V. Quine and A.J Ayer also objected to Derrida for more general reasons that Searle’s. I observed this type of reaction to be quite common among students as well. I could tell a few stories, but this is hardly the place for BYU reminiscences that are more than a decade old.
    Regarding the “I understand something that you don’t” approach to the gospel: It is indeed tempting to say that Derrida is practicing priestcraft, but I don’t honestly believe that. I do, however, find him to be insufferably pedantic (perhaps there is some relationship between pedantry and priestcraft that we could explore further). As far as classifying your interest (or Dr. Anderson’s interest) in Derrida as pedantic, you’re asking me to commit the fallacy of division: I’ve said that the BYU set are attracted to Derrida because they are pedantic, and I will add that they were a bit too interested in the latest fashion. From this, it doesn’t follow that any given person at BYU is following Derrida because they are pedantic, and far be it from me to say so.

  23. David King Landrith
    October 12, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    Sorry about the punctuation in the preceding post. I was not trying to be poetic or illiterate. I just copied it from an outside editor, and so the quotes and apostrophes didn’t take (they were of the curly variety).

  24. Jim F.
    October 13, 2004 at 1:39 am

    David King Landrith: I’m not at all sure what to make of your anticipation of my criticisms: You and I disagree. I ask you to provide evidence for your claims. I think you say that if you were to provide textual evidence, I would criticize you and that would be self-serving. I don’t see the point you are making, but it probably doesn’t matter since you seem to have changed the argument that began our exchange.

    In your first post on this thread, you said that Derrida’s wrote in such a way that one cannot criticize him. Now you seem to say that the problem is that those who read Derrida will brook no criticism of him. Those are two different claims and though I disagree with the first–thus my request that you show some passage where he does that–I have several times said that many who have latched onto Derrida as fans are as you describe them. Derrida may share some culpability for the way he has been received in the US. I think he does; he suggested publicly that he does. But to criticize his fans is not to criticize his philosophy.

    Searle’s criticism was serious, to be sure, but many (including me) who have read the exchange between the two believe that Searle didn’t understand Derrida’s point. If he didn’t understand, then his criticism wasn’t rigorous. Of course Derrida didn’t help matters by responding to Searle’s misunderstanding with mockery. By doing so he invited the scorn of Searle and Searle’s disciples, which they obligingly provided. But the fans of analytic philosophy have seldom been willing to do any better by Derrida than have Derrida’s fans. Both sides reduce him to a set of slogans that they are willing to fight for, and then they join in the fight irrespective of whether they are talking about Derrida or not. For both sides the name “Derrida” is a symbol of something else, some hatred between them. It has virtually nothing to do with the person who bore that name.

    I would like to meet “the BYU set” who is attracted to Derrida. There aren’t very many of them among the faculty, of that I’m sure.

    Finally, I don’t know how we would decide whether Derrida is “insufferably pedantic,” so I’ll have to give that comment a pass.

  25. David King Landrith
    October 13, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    I’ll take the fact that I’m continually restating my position as an indication that I’ve been less than clear (as opposed to taking the more Derrida-like approach of heaping you with scorn and derision). What I said in my first post was, “In practice… Derrida wrote in such a way as to make it impossible to criticize him.” I explicitly qualified that by saying that this was “perhaps, quite apart from his philosophy.” I’ll restate this as follows:

    1. (to use the words that you used to characterize my position) “those who read Derrida will brook no criticism of him”

    2. Derrida’s writings (and from what you have indicated, his actions) encourage this type of stance.

    At any rate, you seem to have conceded both of these points in your latest response. For my part, I must admit that I did overstated my case, but my first post was more of an offhand nature.

    As far as the BYU set, I knew at least 2 or 3 dozen people who were fascinated with Derrida. Among these were English students (including my roommate at BYU, who is now a member of the BYU faculty), psychology students, and philosophy students. Admittedly, I have a small social circle, and this is a biased sample. But given that (if memory serves) there were perhaps 7 or 8 dozen philosophy majors when I attended, this seemed like an awful lot of people to me. Moreover, after I got kicked out of BYU, I completed my degree at another college, where scarcely anyone had even heard of Derrida.

    I appreciate your pass on my “insufferably pedantic” comment, and had I received more training in philosophy (alas, I decided to quit while I could still make good money), I may have actually taken it ;-) That said, I’ll elaborate: From all that I have read by him and about him, Derrida always seemed more preoccupied with being clever than being substantive or even correct. This is, admittedly, a very human mistake, but Derrida seems to have taken it to an extreme. And I don’t tend to believe that this is something that could be proven objectively.

  26. October 13, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Fafblog has a nice little obituary titled “flowers for Derrida” (scroll down a little once you hit the link):

  27. Jim F.
    October 14, 2004 at 12:30 am

    David King Landrith: Though Derrida’s response to Searle had too much mockery, it also had substance. And he did not usually respond to his critics with scorn or derision. Many of his acolytes did, but that is a different matter.

    I would also like to slightly correct your characterization of what I said: (1) many of those who respond to Derrida’s work as fans will brook no criticism. I was paraphrasing you when I said “those who read Derrida will brook no criticism.” (2) Some of what Derrida did encouraged that attitude, and I would add that I don’t think he intentionally encouraged it, for I’ve seen him intentionally and publicly discourage it.

    I have no way of knowing well how many students are interested in Derrida. Since the fad in literature departments has moved from Derrida to other things, I doubt that nearly as many are interested now as once were. (Most of those interested today are graduate students and not necessarily faddists. You no longer see the kind of faddish and down-right weird papers on Derrida at the MLA that you once saw.) On the other hand, I’m quite sure that there isn’t a huge amount of interest in Derrida among the faculty.

    Let me pursue what you’ve said a little further because you have raised issues in a way that, I think, captures what many critics have said and that allows me to explain why I think the better assumption is that Derrida’s work has something to say.

    You’re right, there’s no way to objectively decide whether your opinion of Derrida’s writings–that they are more concerned with being clever than substantive–or mine–that your opinion is wrong–is correct. But there is a reasonable and standard way of making a case for one side or the other: if someone can give an interpretation of Derrida’s writing, based on his texts, that is coherent and that comes to substantive conclusions with reasonable arguments, then it is reasonable to assume that his writings are substantive, whether or not they are also clever. That conclusion is bolstered if more than one reader independently gives similar interpretations. Any number of writers have given such interpretations of his work as substantive, and there is general agreement among them. Clark mentioned several such interpreters, for example. I could site a number of others. So there is strong rational evidence against the claim that his works are not substantive. An argument that they are not would not have to argue that Derrida is wrong, since that isn’t the issue, but that the interpreters have each been mistaken.

    Suppose there were only 10 interpreters of Derrida, 5 of whom said that what he said was without substance and 5 of whom said it was substantive. If the 5 who said it was showed that they could give coherent interpretations of his work that were substantially in agreement, then the rational conclusion would be that his work is substantive, in spite of the interpretations of the 5 who thought otherwise.

    That is very much like the situation we find ourselves in. Many people say stupid things about Derrida, both for and against. As I’ve said, I think they do so in order to use him in their quasi-political battles, so he becomes something like a slogan that one can brandish or attack. In addition to that many, there are serious readers of Derrida who agree with him and serious readers who disagree with him to one degree or another. Whether or not one agrees with him, the fact that serious and careful readers can give coherent interpretations of him suggests that his work is serious. To dismiss him as “merely pedantic” or as “more interested in wit than substance” is to take sides in the quasi-political battle rather than to say something about Derrida.

  28. David King Landrith
    October 14, 2004 at 10:43 am

    Jim. F:
    I hope that my responses to you have been not only substantive, but also free of mockery–and therefore still quite unlike Derrida.

    I don’t agree with your proposed reasonable standard. Whether interpreters can squeeze coherent and substantive conclusions out of Derrida is quite a separate issue from whether Derrida was more interested in wit than wisdom. For example, even if Derrida is substantive, there remains the issue of whether he’s original, insightful, or innovative.

    If Derrida’s interpreters can explain Derrida more clearly than Derrida himself can, then clarity does no violence to his philosophy, and he has little excuse for his stylistic excesses–and even his earlier, more coherent essays (“The End of Man” comes to mind) aren’t terribly clear. It seems to me that Derrida is either (a) not substantive (which, by the way, I’ve never claimed, though you seem to insist that I have), or (b) among the worst communicators in philosophy, or (c) both.

    That said, this is my argument that Derrida is more interested it in style than substance (though admittedly, it’s no proof):

    Contrasting Derrida with (say) Rudolph Carnap, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Karl Popper, Donald Davidson, W.V. Quine, or even Albert Einstein: In spite of all of the dogma and politics and fads surrounding their ideas (even Plato’s Academy was a somewhat political institution), it is safe to say that they never wrote serious philosophy but that they (1) defined their audience as broadly as possible given their subject matter, and (2) were anxious to be clearly understood by that audience. This is not to say that they always succeeded; for example, Kant was often quite difficult, but it’s fair to say that he did struggle to state his ideas as clearly as possible.

    These men have their interpreters, but I don’t believe that anyone will gain more from reading (say) Barry Stroud or Norman Kemp Smith than David Hume. I remain unconvinced that any of this is true of Derrida (I mean with his critics–not Barry Stroud or Norman Kemp Smith), and I do not believe that saying so “take[s] sides in the quasi-political battle” rather than saying something about Derrida.

  29. Jim F.
    October 14, 2004 at 11:29 am

    David King Landrith: I hope I’ve not come across as accusing you of mockery, though your first response originally ceratinly seemed to me to be accusatory. If I thought you were mocking me, I wouldn’t have bothered to have responded. If I thought you were mocking Derrida, I might have said something but I doubt I would have carried on this conversation.

    It isn’t unusual for interpreters to be able to help others read something they otherwise find difficult. That is not necessarily to say that they can explain that material more clearly than the writer did. My experience with Derrida has been quite different than yours: I do not think he is of the rank of someone like Kant or Heidegger. Nevertheless, reading his texts I have seldom found that they are written in the way that they are merely to obfuscate or to illustrate his facility with language. (I can’t think of a time that I have, but I say “seldom” to be safe.) In each case, I see a connection between what he says and how he says it. The question of the connection between style and content is at the heart of much of what Derrida is writing about in the books that are the most notoriously difficult because of the complexity of the language and style. Philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche have experimented with that connection and have found other ways of writing philosophy, ways that aren’t always the ways of analytic philosophy. In addition, it is a question whether the Cartesian standard of “clarity and distinctness” is always the required standard. That is not the only standard in other kinds of writing. Poetry, for example, does not use that standard. Part of Derrida’s question has been whether it is the only standard in philosophy.

    It is probably true that Carnap, Russell, Ayer, Popper, Davidson, Quine, and Einstein always defined their audience as broadly as possible given the subject matter, but the proviso is an important one, for it acknowledges that not everything is written for a wide audience and that if one is not in the audience, the material may be quite difficult. Derrida’s explicit audience is one that knows Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other particular figures, as well as the issues he raises in the context he raises them. The audiences attending his lectures (from which most of his books are drawn) were not Anglo-American philosophers. Nor were they literature students. They were philosophers in a context where much of what he said was understood more readily than it is when it is translated and put into another context.

    As unlikely as it is that one of us is going to persuade the other to change his mind in this interchange, it is even more unlikely that we could, in this context, decide whether Derrida made an original contribution to philosophy. The more I study philosophy, the fewer original contributions I see, if “original” means “never before expressed.” But there are philosophers who repeat something said by an earlier philosopher in a new way and, by doing so, open it up in a way previously not there. That, too, is an original contribution. Even if Derrida has no insight that we cannot find in a previous philosopher, he may have made an original contribution. I think that his most original contribution has been to show us, using Levinas, ways of reading Heidegger that we had not previously seen.

  30. Jim F.
    October 14, 2004 at 11:36 am

    Guy Murray, lurking on these pages, sent me this reference to an article in the New York Times that those who are following this thread will find interesting: . Thanks, Guy.

  31. October 14, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    David, if I gave you the derivation for General Relativity, with all its use of tensor notation, do you really think it would be clear and easy to read? The style Einstein wrote in requires a fair bit of effort to even understand. Once you understand the style, then you can read the text. I think that frequently that is the case with Derrida.

    Certainly not all philosophers write in what I might term the Analytic style. Yes Analytic Philosophy is, in a certain way, more easy to read than some that goes on in Continental philosophy. However I think you err when you say that if someone can clearly explain Derrida that Derrida is somehow intentionally obfuscating. This confuses the explanation of an argument with the argument itself. A lot of philosophy, in my opinion, is complex, because it is making an argument. If you care less about the argument than the general sense, then yes, it is often easy to explain. Heavens, I find wading through Kant tremendously difficult, but I don’t have much trouble with commentaries. Does that mean Kant is obfuscating his philosophy? Are the physicists with pages of tensor calculus being obfuscating simply because the work can be explained in a few pages of clear text? No, because the explanation of what is asserted and the rational reasoning of why it is so aren’t the same.

  32. October 14, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Just to provide an even better example, we all probably took basic mechanics in at least high school, if not freshman physics. You know F=ma and all that. Now we all know that Newton derived all this. So, following your assertion David, we ought easily be able to read Newton’s Principia in which he presented and argued for the laws of motion.

    I here present the Principia and ask if you are able to clearly follow Newton’s argument. If you can read Latin, here is the original scanned in text.

  33. Bryce I
    October 14, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    Here’s a link without the last dot:

  34. David King Landrith
    October 14, 2004 at 3:43 pm

    You lost me on that one, Clark. I don’t see any connection.

  35. Jim F
    October 14, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Bryce I, thanks for the correction. I didn’t notice that the period of my sentence got included in the address.


  36. David King Landrith
    October 14, 2004 at 5:18 pm

    Pardon my previous note, Clark. I only saw your post about the Principia, but not the one above it. I don’t think that I said what you say I said, that “if someone can clearly explain Derrida than Derrida is somehow intentionally obfuscating.”

    That aside, I’ve heard the argument that you are making before. I parody it by saying that it claims, “Derrida is just like everybody else, only more so.” (That is the only derision I have to offer, and I’ll kindly refrain from behaving like Derrida for the remainder of this post.)

    I’ll freely admit the difficulty of (say) topology compared to addition (other things being equal). This is categorically different from the difficulty of a poorly written book on addition vs. a well written book on addition. I’d say that Derrida is like a more like a poorly written book on addition. Moreover, he seems to me to have written it poorly on purpose.

  37. Jim F
    October 14, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    A friend of mine transcribed the “last words” of Derrida, read by his son at the grave. Some may be interested in them:

    “Mes amis, je vous remercie d’être venus. Je vous remercie pour la chance de votre amitié. Ne pleurez pas : souriez comme je vous aurai [aurais?] souri. Je vous bénis. Je vous aime. Je vous souris, où que je sois.”

    “My friends, I thank you for coming. I thank you for the good fortune of your friendship. Do not cry: smile as I would smile at you. I thank God for you. I love you. I am smiling at you, wherever I am.�

  38. Rosalynde Welch
    October 14, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    Apropos of this thread, my sister, a junior at BYU, sent me an email tonight, a portion of which I’ve excerpted here:
    “Yesterday I went to my weekly discussion group where I fill up on
    philosophy. Did you guys know that Jaques Derida died last week? He
    was one of the preeminent 20th century philosophers. He is known
    mostly for his ideas about deconstruction, you know, reducing your
    beliefs down to their component parts and recognizing their origins.
    Our discussion last night was very reflective of that idea of
    deconstruction. We talked about the nuances of truth and belief and
    experience, how they are related, and how we ought to act with our

    Evidence that not all BYU undergraduates see Derrida as unintelligible nihilist (though whether her interpretation of Derrida’s philosophy is correct is, of course, debatable).

  39. October 16, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    More on Derrida (and no I have no idea what it all means, as I’m philosophically impaired).


  40. Jim F.
    October 16, 2004 at 5:09 pm

    Johann Hari gives an excellent overview of the standard interpretation of Derrida’s work in the English-speaking world: In his early writings Derrida denied all meaning, but later on he realized how dumb that was and tried to save himself by saying some things were basic and couldn’t be doubted. The only problem is, there’s a much better interpretation of Derrida, one that understands his early and late writings to be of a piece, and that neither is deeply skeptical. These readings are, I believe, based on a misreading of Grammatology the first of Derrida’s books to hit it big in the U.S. Readers of that work didn’t know how to understand the term “trace,” so they ignored it or turned it into something it wasn’t. But it is a term borrowed from Levinas and, by Levinas, from neo-Platonism. It refers to the way that God appears in the world. The explicit use of that term should have warned people that Derrida was not arguing that language doesn’t refer. Rather, he was arguing that it doesn’t refer by itself and that there is, in the end, no adequate explanation of the connection between language and the world. The connection is, indeed, there. The trace (or spoor) of the world appears in everything we say, but if we try to catch it in what we say, it will elude us.

    So Hari’s piece is an attack on the way many in England and the U.S. have misunderstood Derrida, not an attack on Derrida. Unfortunately, however, Hari doesn’t know the difference.

  41. Ivan Wolfe
    October 16, 2004 at 5:24 pm

    Jim F.-

    I’m not sure we can blame Hari all that much, since so few English and Humanities professors seem to be able to tell the difference either.

  42. October 16, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    Moreover, after I got kicked out of BYU, I completed my degree at another college, where scarcely anyone had even heard of Derrida.

    I appreciate your pass on my “insufferably pedantic� comment, and had I received more training in philosophy (alas, I decided to quit while I could still make good money), I may have actually taken it ;-) That said, I’ll elaborate: From all that I have read by him and about him, Derrida always seemed more preoccupied with being clever than being substantive or even correct. This is, admittedly, a very human mistake, but Derrida seems to have taken it to an extreme. And I don’t tend to believe that this is something that could be proven objectively.

    Comment by David King Landrith — 10/13/2004 : 5:54 pm

    I’m actually more interested in the story of how you left BYU and how things have gone for you since.

    After all, Derrida isn’t contributing too much in posting to this board these days.

  43. October 16, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    hey, it even has pictures.

    Not any worse than a lot of econ textbooks.

  44. October 17, 2004 at 2:35 am

    Just for the record, I never even heard the name Derrida while at BYU – and for a while I was pursuing a philosophy major. I thought I was being all edgy and what-not for reading a lot of Nietzsche at the time… I came upon Derrida many, many years later, while discussing various things on LDS-Phil. So I think the view that BYU is a hotbed of Derridean fans might be a bit of an overstatement, although I have heard some say that analytic philosophy isn’t quite as represented as some think it ought be. (I’m not in the least qualified to speak to that)

    Regarding Derrida and being clever. I think there is some of that in him. Perhaps the spirit of Voltaire rest with him. But I do think he says a lot that is substantial – especially in his later writings. As I’ve said, I think his middle and especially latter writings are much more involved with doing phenomenological analysis using the critiques of phenomenology he established in the earlier decades. So that is why I think so many misread him.

    I’ll freely admit the difficulty of (say) topology compared to addition (other things being equal).

    I suppose it all depends upon what proof of addition you are reading. I defy anyone to go through Whitehead’s and Russell’s proof of 1 + 1 = 2 and understand it the first time. I’d put the Principia Matematica far ahead of anything Derrida wrote. Heavens, even Quine’s Set Theory and its Logic is taxing. I’m still trying to understand why I attempted to wade through that one year.

    The point is that whenever I hear critiques of Derrida as confused and obfuscating, I rarely see examples. When clear examples are provided, in nearly ever case I’ve encountered the person presenting it was wildly misreading it and ill prepared because he never read the earlier works. In the remaining rare cases it was always some quote off the cuff in which Derrida was ill prepared. It seems unfair to judge anyone from some spur of the moment question one is not prepared for.

    That’s not to say Derrida is easy, even for those versed in his writings. Heavens, I fully admit that I’ve struggled with On Spirit and haven’t been able to finish it. But I recognize that is more due to my limits than the text. I wouldn’t criticize Derrida because I had trouble with the text.

  45. October 17, 2004 at 2:48 am

    I don’t think that I said what you say I said, that “if someone can clearly explain Derrida than Derrida is somehow intentionally obfuscating.� That aside, I’ve heard the argument that you are making before. I parody it by saying that it claims, “Derrida is just like everybody else, only more so.�

    You wrote:
    If Derrida’s interpreters can explain Derrida more clearly than Derrida himself can, then clarity does no violence to his philosophy, and he has little excuse for his stylistic excesses

    I wouldn’t say Derrida is just like everyone else. I think few thinkers really pushed the style of philosophy that much. Even with Plato being the pre-eminent philosopher few write in the style he did. (And often his style was discounted in favor of isolating his arguments – even in the ancient world) But there have been figures who’ve experimented with the how of philosophy. And I think that is something that people criticize him for. I think it a somewhat fair criticism, although at the same time I’m not sure that criticism justifies the conclusions many draw. Derrida is definitely in the demonstrative side of philosophy and I think there are reasons for that. Further, I think other thinkers have struggled in similar ways with the same sorts of ideas.

  46. David King Landrith
    October 17, 2004 at 10:17 am

    Clark Goble, I think that your statement, “I defy anyone to go through Whitehead’s and Russell’s proof of 1 + 1 = 2” conflates set theory and addition.

    As far as quoting Derrida, I don’t claim to have a great grasp of his philosophy. Moreover, as far as providing examples, I’ll have to claim ill preparation. As my wife and I have had more kids and they get older, we give them more space in the house, and more of my books have ended up in boxes. I am, after all, only an amateur philosopher (if that).

    Ethesis, I’m not sure that this is the appropriate forum to discuss the circumstances of my leaving BYU or going over my credentials as a Mormon since then. That said, their wasn’t anything salacious or even interesting–I just didn’t go to church a whole heck of a lot. (I was never much the schoolboy, and I’ve been thrown out several schools.) Drop me an email if you want more detail.

  47. October 17, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Not to prolong this discussion any more than people want, but in a fit of passion I put up a bunch of quotes from Derrida which show Derrida isn’t doing what so many blogs have accused him of.

    David, regarding Russell and Whitehead, the whole text is the attempt to ground arithmetic in set theory. The problem was that until the tail end of the 19th century mathematicans tended to be overly free wheeling and never really examined their proofs carefully. It was found that mathematics had a lot of problems in that regard. Whitehead and Russell were attempting to ground all of mathematics in logic. There were other views as well. Goedel famously was a mathematical realist. (i.e. that mathematical objects had a mind-independent existence) One of the more popular movements in the 20th century were the various sorts of constructivism which attempted to make math a kind of language game. I suppose they can be seen as grounding math in a kind of semiotics. Of course I think Peirce moved in that direction prior to most of these folks, and also invoked ethics as a grounding. (Somewhat similar to Kant)

  48. Jim F.
    October 19, 2004 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks very much for the link, Clark. Anyone who wants to say that Derrida doesn’t believe in meaning or that words have reference or . . . should read the things you’ve posted there before commenting.

  49. David King Landrith
    October 23, 2004 at 10:48 am

    Clark, I think it’s fair to stipulate (if nothing else, then for the sake argument) that the field of arithmetic that we call addition includes neither set theory nor logic. And even if it isn’t, this is what I intended–arithmetic could be grounded in cartography, for all that it means to the discussion.

  50. Rob
    October 26, 2004 at 10:04 am

    This thread was slowly going the way of all threads when I happened to pick up some reading and found a discussion of Derrida’s position on animals. Wow. Somehow I missed this, mostly since a lot of it happened in the late 1990s after my undergrad days, and much of it is still in French, but looks like Derrida has done more than any of the other continental philosophers I know to deconstruct the false dichotomy we’ve constructed to separate ourselves from animals. By realizing that there are many traces of meaning in animal communication, Derrida sees an opening for bridging the gap between humans and animals. It isn’t that humans–with our language–are completely different from animals. According to my own misreading, what we’re seeing is that humans and animals can communicate at some level, so we can have a relationship with them. They aren’t completely faceless (Levinas) or “poor in world” (Heidegger)–they call forth their own world, a world that we share to greater or lesser degrees.

    My intro to this is Zoontologies, by Cary Wolfe…and he’s using, among other pieces, Derrida’s 1997 “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)”. I’ve been looking at real animals for the last decade, and am a bit rusty on my continental philosophy, so maybe Jim F, can help me out here, but this looks to be pretty revolutionary stuff in the realm of thinking about the relationship between humans and animals.

    From a Mormon theological perspective, Derrida’s thoughts on the ontology and our relationship to animals might help us think about the nature of our relationship (as eternal beings) with animal intelligences (which are also eternal beings) that we are bound up with both in time and eternity, with the nature of godhood being in part a relationship of care and seeking to promote the growth of all these intelligences.

    Anyway, I’m still working my way through this, but thought I’d throw out my latest appreciation for this philosopher, who I’m only now finding to have had at least part of what I’ve been looking for all along.

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