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Who Was Jacques Derrida?

Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Who Was Jacques Derrida?
    Book Description:

    Who Was Jacques Derrida?is the first intellectual biography of Derrida, the first full-scale appraisal of his career, his influence, and his philosophical roots. It is also the first attempt to define his crucial importance as the ambassador of "theory," the phenomenon that has had a profound influence on academic life in the humanities. Mikics lucidly and sensitively describes for the general reader Derrida's deep connection to his Jewish roots. He succinctly defines his vision of philosophy as a discipline that resists psychology. While pointing out the flaws of that vision and Derrida's betrayal of his most adamantly expounded beliefs, Mikics ultimately concludes that "Derrida was neither so brilliantly right nor so badly wrong as his enthusiasts and critics, respectively, claimed."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15599-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    During his lifetime, Derrida elicited both intense celebration and intense scorn. Rather than judging him in the manner of his disapproving critics, or celebrating him like his followers, I aim to explain his career. Now that Derrida is gone, it is time for a more measured assessment of his worth. His thought was neither as world changing as his disciples claimed nor as dangerous (or absurd) as his critics suspected. It does, however, offer us a necessary lesson concerning the self-imposed limits of philosophy: the way that it tries to purify itself, and the hazards of such purity. Derrida’s work,...

  7. I From Algeria to the École Normale: Sartre, Hegel, Husserl
    (pp. 11-61)

    Derrida’s thought cannot be understood apart from his life. From the beginning, he was an intellectual outsider, a rebel. His efforts to redefine the discipline of philosophy took place against the rigid institutional system of the École Normale Supérieure. The young man from Algeria, a colonial backwater, confronted the powers that be in Paris, the vibrant center of advanced thought. Throughout his life, Derrida retained his early sense of being excluded from the sophisticated hierarchy that told students what and how to think. Even when deconstruction became a dominant institutional force in America, Derrida still felt that he was a...

  8. II Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology
    (pp. 62-138)

    In this chapter I devote extensive attention to two books that Derrida published in 1967,Writing and DifferenceandOf Grammatology. In both works, Derrida insists on the skeptical position he had established in his studies of Husserl. Yet, more important, he also moves beyond the battle between metaphysics and deconstructive skepticism. The real story ofWriting and DifferenceandOf Grammatology, especially the former, is Derrida’s desire for a new, even revolutionary, truth. This truth cannot be found through the mere act of debunking metaphysical assertions. Derrida seeks something more, an empirically present reality: the encounter with the face...

  9. III Plato, Austin, Nietzsche, Freud
    (pp. 139-181)

    In the sixties Derrida became aware of the futility of playing the skeptic, as he had done in his early critique of Husserl. Instead of restricting his role to deflating metaphysics, which, as he saw it, assumed a universe governed by the commanding self-consciousness of a thinking subject (Derrida’s charge against Husserl), Derrida turned to Jewish tradition and, at different moments, to Nietzsche in order to stake a far wider claim for his philosophy. He wanted to unveil a new world—though this world’s contours remained unclear. He assumed a prophetic tone in his treatment of Lévinas and Jabès, suggesting...

  10. IV Gadamer, Celan, de Man, Heidegger
    (pp. 182-215)

    “America is deconstruction.” Derrida’s pronouncement certainly seemed to be true in the 1980s, when he spent much of his time lecturing in the United States. He would land on a Saturday afternoon at JFK and be met by his Yale colleagues Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. An enthusiastic visitor to New York, he loved Brooklyn Heights and Poets’ Alley in Central Park. And there was the desolate, stirring landscape of Laguna Beach, where he lived while teaching at the University of California at Irvine. Invoking Central Park together with the southern California coast, Derrida wrote, “Almost out loud...

  11. V Politics, Marx, Judaism
    (pp. 216-243)

    In the 1990s, as he neared the close of his life and his academic career, Derrida again sought an arena outside philosophy: a wider and more consequential place than arguments about the coherence of metaphysical texts could provide. His chosen term, increasingly, was politics. And the accent of Derrida’s political writings was a prophetic one, full of commanding ethical import. He relied more than before on a Lévinasian view of our responsibility toward others. Derrida was no doubt reacting to his own role in the de Man and Heidegger scandals, when he failed to confront the political commitments of these...

  12. Coda
    (pp. 244-248)

    Two days after Jacques Derrida died of pancreatic cancer, on October 10, 2004, the readers of theNew York Timessaw a front-page obituary titled “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74.” TheTimesobituary called Derrida’s works “turgid and baffling” and noted that he seemed to aim for an effect of maximum incomprehensibility. When asked to define his trademark term, deconstruction, Derrida would say only: “It is impossible to respond” (so theTimesreported). TheTimes’s farewell to Derrida was, to say the least, not respectful: rarely has an obituary been so openly scornful of its subject. Why such...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 249-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-273)