A true philosopher: Derrida questioned his own peculiar methods as much as the things he was questioning. Photo: ©Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Think Jacques Derrida was a charlatan? Look again

A scintillating new biography should make many doubters reappraise the enigmatic French philosopher
October 4, 2020
A true philosopher: Derrida questioned his own peculiar methods as much as the things he was questioning. Photo: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

In May 1992, academics at the University of Cambridge reacted with outrage to a proposed honorary degree from their venerable institution to Jacques Derrida. A letter to the Times from 14 international philosophers followed, protesting that “M Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.”

Depending on your viewpoint, the incident marked the zenith or nadir of Anglo-American analytic philosophy’s resistance to what it saw as the obfuscation and sophistry of its continental European cousin. To them Derrida was a peddler of “tricks and gimmicks,” a cheap entertainer whose stock in trade was “elaborate jokes and puns.”

The irony is that the protests showed a shocking lack of rigour themselves. As Peter Salmon points out in his brilliant biography An Event, Perhaps, Derrida had never used the puerile pun “logical phallusies” that the letter writers attributed to him. This was remarkably sloppy since “it is not as though neologisms ripe for their sort of mockery are hard to find.” Salmon concludes that “none of them had taken the time to read any of Derrida’s work.”

It would have been understandable if some had tried but quickly given up. One of Derrida’s examiners at his prestigious high school, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, wrote of his work: “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure.” His work as an undergraduate was no easier to decipher. Louis Althusser said that he could not grade his dissertation because “it’s too difficult, too obscure.” Michel Foucault could do little better, remarking: “Well, it’s either an F or an A+.”

The Derrida portrayed by Salmon would have shared these doubts. His “nagging fear that those who saw him as a charlatan were right never left him.” Given Derrida’s whole project was one of radical doubt, he could hardly have felt otherwise. Derrida was both admiring and mocking when he described analytic philosophers’ “imperturbable ingenuity,” but their absolute confidence in the rightness of their approach was anathema to him. He was in this respect more truly a philosopher than those who question everything except the peculiarities of their own methods of questioning.

An Event, Perhaps is called a biography but, as Derrida incessantly argued, all categorisations are to some degree arbitrary. Derrida’s life story provides a frame and background for an intellectual biography of his ideas and their development. In the process it also serves as one of the clearest introductions to 20th-century continental philosophy available. The movements and minds that Derrida was responding to are finely sketched with clarity and concision. Difficult thinkers such as Husserl, Levinas, Heidegger, Cixous, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss and Gabriel Marcel become surprisingly approachable; the frequently-blurred distinctions between movements such as structuralism, phenomenology, post-structuralism and existentialism suddenly clarify.

“Derrida’s whole project was one of radical doubt”

Jackie Derrida, as he was named, was born in Algiers in 1930, then a French colony, to largely secular Sephardic Jewish parents. His childhood testifies to his later claims about the inadequacies of language to capture the ambiguities and contradictions of the world, especially those of identity. He was Algerian but not a citizen of Algeria, French without ever having even seen France, Jewish without living a Jewish life, of an Arab country but not Arab, too dark to be seen as European by Europeans, too culturally European to be seen by Africans as African. Little wonder he would later write that identity “is never given, received or attained: only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmic process of identification remains.”

Life in Algeria was unsettling and unpredictable. In 1940, the collaborationist Vichy government in France took away citizenship from the 120,000 Jews in Algeria, which was only restored three years later after Allied forces retook the country. But from the time Derrida enrolled as a boarder at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and then the even more exclusive École normale supérieure, he lived a comfortable life among the elite. However, he never lost his outsider’s edge. Never one to join groups or mass movements, he would in time dislike the cultish adoration of his acolytes.

Despite the way the Anglo-Saxon academy often bundles him in with them, Derrida was never one of the postmodernists. He did, however, share the movement’s distrust of grand narratives that provide single, and often simple, explanations that erase the complexities of the real world. Everything has to be carefully “deconstructed”: analysed in its specificity, “alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use.” That is perhaps why he wrote so much. Deconstruction was a method more than a theory and there was no limit to what could be deconstructed.

Still, there was a unity to Derrida’s oeuvre, captured in his talk of “adopting equivocality”—what Salmon calls “perhaps as close as we have to a Derridean call to arms.” In much classical and contemporary analytic philosophy there is an assumption, more or less explicit, that there is a way that things are and that the task of language is to map it, to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato put it. For Derrida, it is not that nature has no joints, or that the world can simply be carved however we please. Rather, there is always more than one way to carve, and every slice divorces us from possible alternative ways of seeing and understanding. Naming is thus, says Salmon, a “founding act of violence… before there is a road taken and a road not taken.”

This idea is at the heart of Derrida’s key concept of différance. Every concept, every distinction, carries with it the ghost of an alternative conception or distinction not made. One task of deconstruction is to recover these lost possibilities, to show that the way we think of things is not the only way they can be thought. We may not use the word, but we all have a sense of what différance means. “Anyone who has formed quotation marks in the air with their fingers to identify a word where the use and meaning are not absolutely cleaved,” says Salmon, “has acknowledged the possibility of différance as posited by Derrida.” The ubiquity of this gesture suggests Derrida was right when he commented “once quotation marks demand to appear, they don’t know where to stop.”

Derrida’s project is diametrically opposed to that of most philosophers. One of the broadest and most accurate descriptions of philosophy as generally practised in the west is that it seeks the resolution of aporias: seemingly intractable contradictions that inevitably emerge from our understanding of the world. For instance, it is an aporia that we seem to have knowledge, but also have reason to believe we can be certain of nothing. Another is that we appear to have free will, but also understand ourselves to be subject to mechanical laws of nature. In such aporias, simply giving up one side of the contradiction is not possible without a major reconfiguration of our understanding.

For Derrida, however, Salmon argues “the goal was to keep an aporia in suspension.” Using Gabriel Marcel’s distinction, philosophy has seen itself as concerned with solving problems that exist independently of us, when it should be trying to understand the insoluble mysteries that we have to live with.

You can see why Derrida’s writing could never have been clear and plain. If you take as a premise “meaning cannot be fixed” then in your writing you will take pains to avoid any suggestion of false precision. As Salmon puts it, “Language that presumes itself fixed and proclaimed from the mountain is the sovereign right of God, not of humans.”

Hence Derrida’s difficult style, far from being an affectation, is an inevitable requirement of his philosophy. He adopts “obfuscation as a structural necessity, to draw attention to the undecidability of certain notions, or to foreground their complexity.” Manner and matter cannot be separated. The style of analytic philosophy, “privileging clarity as though it was a transparent deliverer of meaning,” is not philosophically neutral but professes the foundational assumptions of the school itself.

“Anyone who has formed quotation marks in the air with their fingers to identify a word has acknowledged the possibility of différance

One of Derrida’s claims that analytic philosophers would have no difficulty agreeing with is: “One shouldn’t complicate things for the pleasure of complicating, but one should also never simplify or pretend to be sure of such simplicity where there is none. If things were simple, word would have gotten round.” The difference is that they take a different view of what is difficult. The complication of analytic philosophy arises from the attempt to be as precise as possible, whereas the complication for Derrida is the result of meticulously trying to avoid being more precise than is possible.

That is not to say Derrida is never guilty of linguistic extravagance. He admitted that he was “an incorrigible hyperbolite,” and that “I always exaggerate.” Early in his career he accused Heidegger of using “Noisy, pretentious and heavy dialect… [a] crowd of neologisms of which a good part are superfluous,” which leads Salmon to sardonically note that “Derrida’s prejudices against this sort of writing were, one might point out, not ongoing.”

Yet Derrida also sagely said “ordinary language is probably right,” because ordinary language never pretends to have the precision or purity of philosophical speech. Philosophy’s attempted resolutions of aporias are attempts to tidy up language. Derrida, in contrast, wants to remind us that language is even less precise, even more equivocal than common sense presumes. Philosophers’ attempts to pin down words are as futile as nailing jelly to a wall. Language is slippery since each new iteration newly recombined by each speaker brings with it the possibility of a mutation of meaning, even from the meaning the speaker intended for it.

A revealing dispute with a leading analytic philosopher, John Searle, makes the cleft between the two approaches clear. Searle’s early work was on his mentor JL Austin’s concept of the “speech act.” Austin’s insight was that words do not only convey meanings, they can be used to actually do things. If a priest pronounces a couple man and wife, they become married; a judge sends someone to prison merely by issuing a sentence.

If this recognition of the heterogeneity of speech was helpful to Derrida, the ways in which analytic philosophers developed the idea were not. For instance, when talking of promising as a speech act, Searle wrote: “I am ignoring marginal, fringe, and partially defective promises.” For Derrida this was inexcusable. By only focusing on abstracted, tidied-up, ideal forms of speech acts, Searle was ignoring how they actually work. Searle thought this simplification was harmless, just “a matter of research strategy.” Derrida thought it was another example of philosophy choosing a false precision over more truthful messiness.

The written dispute with Searle was bitter. The American was snide and condescending, but Derrida came to view his own reply “with a certain uneasiness,” seeing it “not devoid of aggressivity.” He at least recognised that philosophical debate involves passions and personalities, not just language and logic.

For all his 20th-century jargon, Derrida at heart belongs to a long line of sceptics that traces back to Pyrrho in Ancient Greece. “Crucial to his thinking,” says Salmon, was an opposition to the “violence of any gesture that pretends (assumes, supposes, presupposes) to know.” He was not a nihilist who denied truth, but a sceptic who thought “we cannot know whether there is truth or not.” Still, we can understand better by digging beneath the surface of concepts and language, finding what has not been said. Deconstruction is not destruction, as he was at pains to point out.

In ethics and politics Derrida’s suspension of judgment made him cautious of political action. Unlike many peers, such as the then Maoist Alain Badiou, he did not join the Paris revolts of 1968. “What we desired, in poetics terms, was the metaphysics of radical conflict, and not the patient deconstruction of opposites,” the soixante-huitard Badiou said, “and Derrida could not agree about that.”

In retrospect, this might seem admirable. However, his defence of the antisemitism and duplicity of his old friend Paul de Man back in the Nazi era, which emerged only after de Man’s death, cast him as just the kind of slippery relativist his critics accused him of being.

But Derrida was intensely serious about his work, writing more than 40 books and accumulating a library of over 13,000. Maybe he was profoundly mistaken. Even Salmon, clearly an admirer, says his 1966 classic Of Grammatology is “gloriously bonkers.” But anyone who believes he was a charlatan—especially without having made a serious attempt to read him—will surely have their minds changed by Salmon’s scintillating account of his life and thought.

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An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida, by Peter Salmon (Verso, £16.99)