Jacques Derrida (1930- )

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Derrida, Jacques (1930- ), French philosopher, whose work originated the school of deconstruction, a strategy of analysis that has been applied to literature, linguistics, philosophy, law and architecture. In 1967 Derrida published three books—Speech and Phenomena; Of Grammatology; and Writing and Difference, which introduced the deconstructive approach to reading texts. Derrida has resisted being classified, and his later works continue to redefine his thought.

Derrida was born in El-Biar, Algeria. In 1952 he began studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he later taught from 1965 to 1984. From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught at the Sorbonne in Paris. Since the early 1970s, he has divided much of his time between Paris and the United States, where he has taught at such universities as Johns Hopkins, Yale, and the University of California at Irvine. His other works include Glas (1974) and The Post Card (1980).

Derrida's work focuses on language. He contends that the traditional, or metaphysical way of reading makes a number of false assumptions about the nature of texts. A traditional reader believes that language is capable of expressing ideas without changing them, that in the hierarchy of language writing is secondary to speech, and that the author of a text is the source of its meaning. Derrida's deconstructive style of reading subverts these assumptions and challenges the idea that a text has an unchanging, unified meaning. Western culture has tended to assume that speech is a clear and direct way to communicate. Drawing on psychoanalysis and linguistics, Derrida questions this assumption. As a result, the author's intentions in speaking cannot be unconditionally accepted. This multiplies the number of legitimate interpretations of a text.

Deconstruction shows the multiple layers of meaning at work in language. By deconstructing the works of previous scholars, Derrida attempts to show that language is constantly shifting. Although Derrida's thought is sometimes portrayed by critics as destructive of philosophy, deconstruction can be better understood as showing the unavoidable tensions between the ideals of clarity and coherence that govern philosophy and the inevitable shortcomings that accompany its production.

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