Derrida was born on July 15, 1930 in El-Biar (a suburb of Algiers), Algeria, into a Sephardic Jewish family. As is well-known, Algeria at this time was a French colony. Because Derrida's writing concerns auto-bio-graphy (writing about one's life as a form of relation to oneself), many of his writings are auto-biographical. So, for instance in Monolingualism of the Other, Derrida recounts how, when he was in the “lycée” (high school), the Vichy regime in France proclaimed certain interdictions concerning the native languages of Algeria, in particular Berber. Derrida calls his experience of the “interdiction” “unforgettable and generalizable”. In fact, the “Jewish laws” passed by the Vichy regime interrupted his high school studies.
Immediately after World War II, Derrida started to study philosophy. In 1949, he moved to Paris, where he prepared for the entrance exam in philosophy for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Derrida failed his first attempt at this exam, but passed it in his second try in 1952. In one of the many eulogies that he wrote for members of his generation, Derrida recounts that, as he went into the courtyard toward the building in which he would sit for the second try, Gilles Deleuze passed him, smiling and saying, “My thoughts are with you, my very best thoughts.” Indeed, Derrida entered the École Normale at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age. We have already mentioned Deleuze, but there was also Foucault, Althusser, Lyotard, Barthes, and Marin. Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Ricœur, Blanchot, and Levinas were still alive. The Fifties in France was the time of phenomenology, and Derrida studied closely Husserl's then published works as well as some of the archival material that was then available. The result was a “Mémoire” (a Masters thesis) from the academic year 1953-54 called The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy; Derrida published this text in 1990. Most importantly, at the École Normale, Derrida studied Hegel with Jean Hyppolite. Hyppolite (along with Maurice de Gandillac) was to direct Derrida's doctoral thesis, “The Ideality of the Literary Object”; Derrida never completed this thesis. His studies with Hyppolite however led Derrida to a noticeably Hegelian reading of Husserl, one already underway through the works of Husserl's assistant, Eugen Fink. Derrida claimed in his 1980 speech “The Time of a Thesis” (presented on the occasion of him finally receiving his doctorate) that he never studied Merleau-Ponty and Sartre and that especially he never subscribed to their readings of Husserl and phenomenology in general. With so much Merleau-Ponty archival material available, it is possible now however to see similarities between Merleau-Ponty's final studies of Husserl and Derrida's first studies. Nevertheless, even if one knows Merleau-Ponty's thought well, one is taken aback by Derrida's one hundred and fifty page long Introduction to his French translation of Husserl's “The Origin of Geometry” (1962). Derrida's Introduction looks to be a radically new understanding of Husserl insofar as Derrida stresses the problem of language in Husserl's thought of history.
The 1960's is a decade of great achievement for this generation of French thinkers. 1961 sees the publication of Foucault's monumental Folie et déraison (Madness and Civilization is the English language title). At this time, Derrida is participating in a seminar taught by Foucault; on the basis of it, he will write “Cogito and the History of Madness” (1963), in which he criticizes Foucault's early thought, especially Foucault's interpretation of Descartes. “Cogito and the History of Madness” will result in a rupture between Derrida and Foucault, which will never fully heal. In the early 60's, Derrida reads Heidegger and Levinas carefully. Then in 1964, Derrida publishes a long two part essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics.” It is hard to determine which of Derrida's early essays is the most important, but certainly “Violence and Metaphysics” has to be a leading candidate. What comes through clearly in “Violence and Metaphysics” is Derrida's great sympathy for Levinas's thought of alterity, and at the same it is clear that Derrida is taking some distance from Levinas's thought. Despite this distance, “Violence and Metaphysics” will open up a lifetime friendship with Levinas. In 1967 (at the age of thirty-seven), Derrida has his “annus mirabilis,” publishing three books at once: Writing and Difference,Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology. In all three, Derrida uses the word “deconstruction” (to which we shall return below) in passing to describe his project. The word catches on immediately and comes to define Derrida's thought. From then on up to the present, the word is bandied about, especially in the Anglophone world. It comes to be associated with a form of writing and thinking that is illogical and imprecise. It must be noted that Derrida's style of writing contributed not only to his great popularity but also to the great animosity some felt towards him. His style is frequently more literary than philosophical and therefore more evocative than argumentative. Certainly, Derrida's style is not traditional. In the same speech from 1980 at the time of him being awarded a doctorate, Derrida tells us that, in the Seventies, he devoted himself to developing a style of writing. The most famous or infamous example is his 1974 Glas (“Death Knell” would be an approximate English translation); here Derrida writes in two columns, with the left devoted to a reading of Hegel and the right devoted to a reading of the French novelist-playwright Jean Genet. Another example would be his 1980 Postcard from Socrates to Freud and Beyond; the opening two hundred pages of this book consist of love letters addressed to no one in particular. It seems that sometime around this time (1980), Derrida reverted back to the more linear and somewhat argumentative style, the very style that defined his texts from the Sixties. He never however renounced a kind of evocation, a calling forth that truly defines deconstruction. Derrida takes the idea of a call from Heidegger. Starting in 1968 with “The Ends of Man,” Derrida devoted a number of texts to Heidegger's thought. In particular, during the 1980's, Derrida wrote a series of essays on the question of sex or race in Heidegger (“Geschlecht I-IV”). While frequently critical, these essays often provide new insights into Heidegger's thought. The culminating essay in Derrida's series on Heidegger is his 1992 Aporias.
Throughout the Sixties, having been invited by Hyppolite and Althusser, Derrida taught at the École Normale. In 1983, he became “Director of Studies” in “Philosophical Institutions” at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; he will hold this position until his death. Starting in the Seventies, Derrida held many appointments in American universities, in particular Johns Hopkins University and Yale University. From 1987, Derrida taught one semester a year at the University of California at Irvine. Derrida's close relationship with Irvine led to the establishment of the Derrida archives there. Also during the Seventies, Derrida associated himself with GREPH (“Le Groupe de Recherche sur l'Enseignement Philosophique,” in English: “The Group Investigating the Teaching of Philosophy”). As its name suggests, this group investigated how philosophy is taught in the high schools and universities in France. Derrida wrote several texts based on this research, many of which were collected in Du droit à la philosophie (1990, an approximate English title would be: “Concerning the Right to Philosophy”). In 1982, Derrida was also one of the founders of the Collège Internationale de Philosophie in Paris, and served as its first director from 1982 to 1984.
In the 1990's, Derrida's works went in two simultaneous directions that tend to intersect and overlap with one another: politics and religion. These two directions were probably first clearly evident in Derrida's 1989 “Force of Law.” But one can see them better in his 1993 Specters of Marx, where Derrida insisted that a deconstructed (or criticized) Marxist thought is still relevant to today's world despite globalization and that a deconstructed Marxism consists in a new messianism, a messianism of a “democracy to come.” But, even though Derrida was approaching the end of his life, he produced many interesting texts in the Nineties and into the new century. For instance, Derrida's 1996 text on Levinas, “A Word of Welcome,” lays out the most penetrating logic of the same and other through a discussion of hospitality. In his final works on sovereignty, in particular, Rogues (2003), Derrida shows that the law always contains the possibility of suspension, which means that even the most democratic of nations (the United States for example) resembles a “rogue state” or perhaps is the most “roguish” of all states. Based on lectures first presented during the summer of 1998, L'animal que donc je suis (The Animal that Therefore I am) appeared as the first posthumous work in 2006; concerning animality, it indicates Derrida's continuous interest in the question of life. Animal life and power is the theme of Derrida's last lecture courses on “The Beast and the Sovereign.” Sometime in 2002, Derrida was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on October 8, 2004. Since his death two biographies have appeared.
As we said at the beginning, “deconstruction” is the most famous of Derrida's terms. He seems to have appropriated the term from Heidegger's use of “destruction” in Being and Time. But we can get a general sense of what Derrida means with deconstruction by recalling Descartes's First Meditation. There Descartes says that for a long time he has been making mistakes. The criticism of his former beliefs both mistaken and valid aims towards uncovering a “firm and permanent foundation.” The image of a foundation implies that the collection of his former beliefs resembles a building. In the First Meditation then, Descartes is in effect taking down this old building, “de-constructing” it. We have also seen how much Derrida is indebted to traditional transcendental philosophy which really starts here with Descartes' search for a “firm and permanent foundation.” But with Derrida, we know now, the foundation is not a unified self but a divisible limit between myself and myself as an other (auto-affection as hetero-affection: “origin-heterogeneous”).
Derrida has provided many definitions of deconstruction. But three definitions are classical. Thefirst is early, being found in the 1971 interview “Positions” and in the 1972 Preface toDissemination: deconstruction consists in “two phases” (Positions, pp. 41-42, Dissemination, pp.4-6). At this stage of his career Derrida famously (or infamously) speaks of “metaphysics” as if the Western philosophical tradition was monolithic and homogeneous. At times he also speaks of “Platonism,” as Nietzsche did. Simply, deconstruction is a criticism of Platonism, which is defined by the belief that existence is structured in terms of oppositions (separate substances or forms) and that the oppositions are hierarchical, with one side of the opposition being more valuable than the other. The first phase of deconstruction attacks this belief by reversing the Platonistic hierarchies: the hierarchies between the invisible or intelligible and the visible or sensible; between essence and appearance; between the soul and body; between living memory and rote memory; between mnēmē and hypomnēsis; between voice and writing; between finally good and evil. In order to clarify deconstruction's “two phases,” let us restrict ourselves to one specific opposition, the opposition between appearance and essence. Nietzsche had also criticized this opposition but it is clearly central to phenomenological thinking as well. So, in Platonism, essence is more valuable than appearance. In deconstruction however, we reverse this, making appearance more valuable than essence. How? Here we could resort to empiricist arguments (in Hume for example) that show that all knowledge of what we call essence depends on the experience of what appears. But then, this argumentation would imply that essence and appearance are not related to one another as separate oppositional poles. The argumentation in other words would show us that essence can be reduced down to a variation of appearances (involving the roles of memory and anticipation). The reduction is a reduction to what we can call “immanence,” which carries the sense of “within” or “in.” So, we would say that what we used to call essence is found in appearance, essence is mixed into appearance. Now, we can back track a bit in the history of Western metaphysics. On the basis of the reversal of the essence-appearance hierarchy and on the basis of the reduction to immanence, we can see that something like a decision (a perhaps impossible decision) must have been made at the beginning of the metaphysical tradition, a decision that instituted the hierarchy of essence-appearance and separated essence from appearance. This decision is what really defines Platonism or “metaphysics.” After this retrospection, we can turn now to a second step in the reversal-reduction of Platonism, which is the second “phase” of deconstruction. The previously inferior term must be re-inscribed as the “origin” or “resource” of the opposition and hierarchy itself. How would this re-inscription or redefinition of appearance work? Here we would have to return to the idea that every appearance or every experience is temporal. In the experience of the present, there is always a small difference between the moment of now-ness and the past and the future. (It is perhaps possible that Hume had already discovered this small difference when, in theTreatise, he speaks of the idea of relation.) In any case, this infinitesimal difference is not only a difference that is non-dualistic, but also it is a difference that is, as Derrida would say, “undecidable.” Although the minuscule difference is virtually unnoticeable in everyday common experience, when we in fact notice it, we cannot decide if we are experiencing the past or the present, if we are experiencing the present or the future. Insofar as the difference is undecidable, it destabilizes the original decision that instituted the hierarchy. After the redefinition of the previously inferior term, Derrida usually changes the term's orthography, for example, writing “différence” with an “a” as “différance” in order to indicate the change in its status. Différance (which is found in appearances when we recognize their temporal nature) then refers to the undecidable resource into which “metaphysics” “cut” in order to makes its decision. In “Positions,” Derrida calls names like “différance” “old names” or “paleonyms,” and there he also provides a list of these “old terms”: “pharmakon”; “supplement”; “hymen”; “gram”; “spacing”; and “incision” (Positions, p. 43). These names are old because, like the word “appearance” or the word “difference,” they have been used for centuries in the history of Western philosophy to refer to the inferior position in hierarchies. But now, they are being used to refer to the resource that has never had a name in “metaphysics”; they are being used to refer to the resource that is indeed “older” than the metaphysical decision.
This first definition of deconstruction as two phases gives way to the refinement we find in the “Force of Law” (which dates from 1989-1990). This second definition is less metaphysical and more political. In “Force of Law,” Derrida says that deconstruction is practiced in two styles (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, p. 21). These “two styles” do not correspond to the “two phases” in the earlier definition of deconstruction. On the one hand, there is the genealogical style of deconstruction, which recalls the history of a concept or theme. Earlier in his career, in Of Grammatology, Derrida had laid out, for example, the history of the concept of writing. But now what is at issue is the history of justice. On the other hand, there is the more formalistic or structural style of deconstruction, which examines a-historical paradoxes or aporias. In “Force of Law,” Derrida lays out three aporias, although they all seem to be variants of one, an aporia concerning the unstable relation between law (the French term is “droit,” which also means “right”) and justice.
Derrida calls the first aporia, “the epoche of the rule” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 22-23). Our most common axiom in ethical or political thought is that to be just or unjust and to exercise justice, one must be free and responsible for one's actions and decisions. Here Derrida in effect is asking: what is freedom. On the one hand, freedom consists in following a rule; but in the case of justice, we would say that a judgment that simply followed the law was only right, not just. For a decision to be just, not only must a judge follow a rule but also he or she must “re-institute” it, in a new judgment. Thus a decision aiming at justice (a free decision) is both regulated and unregulated. The law must be conserved and also destroyed or suspended, suspension being the meaning of the word “epoche.” Each case is other, each decision is different and requires an absolutely unique interpretation which no existing coded rule can or ought to guarantee. If a judge programmatically follows a code, he or she is a “calculating machine.” Strict calculation or arbitrariness, one or the other is unjust, but they are both involved; thus, in the present, we cannot say that a judgment, a decision is just, purely just. For Derrida, the “re-institution” of the law in a unique decision is a kind of violence since it does not conform perfectly to the instituted codes; the law is always, according to Derrida, founded in violence. The violent re-institution of the law means that justice is impossible. Derrida calls the second aporia “the ghost of the undecidable (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 24-26). A decision begins with the initiative to read, to interpret, and even to calculate. But to make such a decision, one must first of all experience what Derrida calls “undecidability.” One must experience that the case, being unique and singular, does not fit the established codes and therefore a decision about it seems to be impossible. The undecidable, for Derrida, is not mere oscillation between two significations. It is the experience of what, though foreign to the calculable and the rule, is still obligated. We are obligated – this is a kind of duty—to give oneself up to the impossible decision, while taking account of rules and law. As Derrida says, “A decision that did not go through the ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision, it would only be the programmable application or unfolding of a calculable process” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, p. 24). And once the ordeal is past (“if this ever happens,” as Derrida says), then the decision has again followed or given itself a rule and is no longer presently just. Justice therefore is always to come in the future, it is never present. There is apparently no moment during which a decision could be called presently and fully just. Either it has not a followed a rule, hence it is unjust; or it has followed a rule, which has no foundation, which makes it again unjust; or if it did follow a rule, it was calculated and again unjust since it did not respect the singularity of the case. This relentless injustice is why the ordeal of the undecidable is never past. It keeps coming back like a “phantom,” which “deconstructs from the inside every assurance of presence, and thus every criteriology that would assure us of the justice of the decision” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 24-25). Even though justice is impossible and therefore always to come in or from the future, justice is not, for Derrida, a Kantian ideal, which brings us to the third aporia. The third is called “the urgency that obstructs the horizon of knowledge” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 26-28). Derrida stresses the Greek etymology of the word “horizon”: “As its Greek name suggests, a horizon is both the opening and limit that defines an infinite progress or a period of waiting.” Justice, however, even though it is un-presentable, does not wait. A just decision is always required immediately. It cannot furnish itself with unlimited knowledge. The moment of decision itself remains a finite moment of urgency and precipitation. The instant of decision is then the moment of madness, acting in the night of non-knowledge and non-rule. Once again we have a moment of irruptive violence. This urgency is why justice has no horizon of expectation (either regulative or messianic). Justice remains an event yet to come. Perhaps one must always say “can-be” (the French word for “perhaps” is “peut-être,” which literally means “can be”) for justice. This ability for justice aims however towards what is impossible.
Even later in Derrida's career he will formalize, beyond these aporias, the nature of deconstruction. The third definition of deconstruction can be found in an essay from 2000 called “Et Cetera.” Here Derrida in fact presents the principle that defines deconstruction:
Each time that I say ‘deconstruction and X (regardless of the concept or the theme),’ this is the prelude to a very singular division that turns this X into, or rather makes appear in this X,an impossibility that becomes its proper and sole possibility, with the result that between the X as possible and the ‘same’ X as impossible, there is nothing but a relation of homonymy, a relation for which we have to provide an account…. For example, here referring myself to demonstrations I have already attempted …, gift, hospitality, death itself (and therefore so many other things) can be possible only as impossible, as the im-possible, that is, unconditionally (Deconstructions: a User's Guide, p. 300, my emphasis).
Even though the word “deconstruction” has been bandied about, we can see now the kind of thinking in which deconstruction engages. It is a kind of thinking that never finds itself at the end. Justice – this is undeniable – is impossible (perhaps justice is the “impossible”) and therefore it is necessary to make justice possible in countless ways.