July 15, 2013
When French post-structuralist thinker and social critic JACQUES DERRIDA (1930–2004) died, much of the obituary attention centered on the “controversial” nature of his views, which many mainstream analytic philosophers had dismissed as charlatanry. The flurry of opposition among some Cambridge University dons to his proposed honorary degree from the august institution in the English Fens was gleefully revisited. But whatever you think of Derrida’s dense, self-conscious and sometimes maddeningly elusive prose, it must be admitted that the joke is all on his phallogocentric opponents. The clearest theme in his prodigious volume of writing is that nothing in language is clear: every attempt to speak plainly — the bread-and-butter assumption of philosophy in its dominant contemporary mode — is doomed to failure because there is no solid linguistic ground beneath our feet, only the looming mise-en-abyme of différance, with meanings forever disappearing into themselves. And so to oppose this as nonsense is merely to perpetuate one’s blindness, but without acknowledging the fact. Derrida could be precise when he wanted to be, as in his matchless takedown of John Searle’s clunky philosophy of language; and he could be mystical, as in the ambivalent later works on democracy, terrorism, and religion. He dismissed biographical attributions, but the central tenet of his deconstruction project — that “there is nothing outside the text” — gains both power and pathos when one recalls that Algerian-born Jews are the perpetual inside-outsiders of French intellectual life. Derrida once called death a ‘gift’, and one hopes he still meant it when pancreatic cancer visited — at least, as much as anyone can mean anything.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).