Born July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, Algeria; died of pancreatic cancer, October 8, 2004, in Paris, France. Philosopher. Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida upended the intellectual community in the 1960s when he began promoting his own school of philosophy dubbed deconstructionism, a study of the meaninglessness of meaning. Deconstructionists seek to unravel the meaning of a text by searching for ambiguities and contradictions in hopes that they will reveal hidden meanings. Once the text is "deconstructed," the meaning becomes elusive. The philosophy provoked controversy as it spread through college campuses in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, earning Derrida both reverence and contempt for the remainder of his life.
Derrida (pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was born into a middle-class Jewish family on July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, Algeria. His father worked as a salesman. Derrida's childhood was rife with misfortune. Two brothers died young causing his mother to become overprotective. In addition, Derrida was expelled from school around the age of 12 as a result of French Algeria's newly passed anti-Semitic laws that restricted the number of Jewish children allowed in its schools. At the time Derrida was the top student at his academy. Derrida's family, which had lived in Algeria for five generations, lost its citizenship and Derrida began to think of himself as an outsider.
As a teenager Derrida took an interest in philosophy after hearing a talk about French author and philosopher Albert Camus, who promoted a philosophy known as absurdism, which held that attempts to find meaning in life were hopeless because the world was an irrational place. His curiosity piqued, Derrida began reading the works of French writer André Gide, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and French philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jean-Paul Sartre.
After being forced out of his Algerian academy, Derrida attended an informal school for Jewish children but did not take his studies seriously and was often absent. Derrida wanted to play professional soccer but finally realized he lacked the athletic prowess to succeed. He turned to academia and earned admittance to France's most prestigious college, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. While there he met Marguerite Aucouturier, who was studying to become a psychoanalyst. They married in 1957 and had two sons.
Derrida earned his philosophy degree in 1956, then studied briefly at Harvard University before returning to Algeria to serve as a teacher in the French army. Around 1960 Derrida began teaching philosophy and logic at the Collège de Sorbonne in France. By 1965 he was teaching at the École Normale Supérieure and contributing to the leftist magazine Tel Quel .
In 1966 Derrida introduced his philosophy to the United States during a symposium at Johns Hopkins University. He gained more attention the following year when he published three groundbreaking works, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology , which further defined his philosophy and method. Their publication touched off animated debates in intellectual circles around the globe, though Derrida's ideas were best received in the United States. The books served to further Derrida's argument that a text can never have a single, authoritative meaning in and of itself.
While this early trio of books attracted a large number of readers, his later works were read mostly by disciples of the discipline. For most people Derrida's books (some 50 in number) were hard to comprehend. At times sentences ran three pages and footnotes even longer. The language was intentionally dense. Critics charged that his books were uncomprehendable, while his followers argued they were brilliant, perfect examples of the elusiveness of meaning.
Young intellectuals—looking for a new philosophy to call their own—were drawn to deconstructionism and it flourished on college campuses into the early 1980s. Crowds gathered to hear Derrida speak. Highly charismatic and darkly Mediterranean with a crop of prematurely white hair and bristly eyebrows, Derrida commanded attention. His lectures included ingenious plays on words, rhymes, and puns. According to Jonathan Kandell in the New York Times , Derrida was known for making baffling proclamations, such as, "Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun," and "Oh my friends, there is no friend."
Derrida's deconstructionist theory took off quickly in the field of literature as scholars began deconstructing classic works of literature and philosophy, yielding revolutionary reinterpretations. In time architects hopped on board, too, and took a "deconstructionist" approach to design by disregarding such traditions as symmetry. The theory even trickled down into pop culture. In 1997, filmmaker Woody Allen released Deconstructing Harry , a movie that focused on breaking down and analyzing the main character's neurotic contradictions in an attempt to understand him.
By the 1970s Derrida was regularly lecturing at Yale University and in 1986 joined the staff of the University of California at Irvine. For the next 20 years he split his time between Irvine and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
In 1992 Britain's Cambridge University attempted to award Derrida an honorary degree, but many faculty members protested. According to the Washington Post , they denounced his writings as "denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice." In the end Derrida won the award by a vote of 336 to 204.
Derrida's critics accused him of being a nihilist— someone who believed there was no meaning. Detractors believed the philosophy would destroy society by reducing it to a negative state of meaning. Derrida, however, charged that just because a text contained no single meaning did not mean it did not have any meaning. Derrida's detractors forever asked him to define his philosophy in straightforward terms. He most often declined and once told a New York Times reporter that attempting to offer a definition for deconstructionism would simply yield "something which will leave me unsatisfied."
By the early 1990s deconstructionism was no longer in vogue, though campuses continue to teach and be influenced by the theory. Derrida continued lecturing at Irvine until 2003 and continued his duties as director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris until 2004.
Derrida died of pancreatic cancer at a Paris hospital on October 8, 2004; he was 74. He was survived by his wife, Marguerite, and two sons, Pierre and Jean, as well as a son, Daniel, whom he had with philosophy teacher Sylviane Agacinski. Sources: Independent (London), October 11, 2004, p. 34; Los Angeles Times , October 10, 2004, p. B16; New York Times , October 10, 2004, p. A1; Washington Post , October 10, 2004, p. C11.
— Lisa Frick