Jacques Derrida

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Derrida by Pablo Secca.

Jacques Derrida (15 July 19308 October 2004) was a French philosopher who introduced the practice of "deconstruction".



  • il n'y a pas de hors-texte
    • Translation: "There is no outside-text." It is usually mistranslated as "There is nothing outside the text" by his opponents to make it appear that Derrida is claiming nothing exists beyond language (see Searle–Derrida debate). In French, that mistranslated phrase would actually read "Il n'y a rien en dehors du texte."
    • "Of Grammatology", tr. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, 1976. (Original French published by Éditions de Minuit, Paris, in 1967, as "De la grammatologie"), 158-59; latter alternative translation by J.G. Merquior (1986). From Paris to Prague: A Critique of Structuralist and Poststructualist Thought. London: Verso, ISBN 0-86091-129-2, p. 220

Writing and Difference[edit]

  • This book, admirable in so many respects, power in its break and style, is even more intimidating for me in that, having formely had the good fortune to study under Michel Foucault, I retain the consciousness of an admiring and grateful disciple. Now, the disciple's consciousness, when he starts, I would not say to dispute, but to engage in dialogue with the master or, better, to articulate the interminable and silent dialogue which made him into a disciple-this disciple's consciousness is an unhappy consciousness.
    • Cogito and The History of Madness (Routledge classics edition)
  • The disciple must break the glass, or better the mirror, the reflection, his infinite speculation on the master. And start to speak.
    • Cogito and The History of Madness, p.37 (Routledge classics edition)
  • In writing a history of madness, Foucault has attempted-and this is the greatest merit, but also the very infeasibility of his book0to write a history of madness itself. Itself. Of madness itself. That is by letting madness speak for itself.
    • Cogito and The History of Madness, p.37 (Routledge classics edition)


  • At the end of Being and Nothingness, ... Being in-itself and Being for-itself were of Being; and this totality of beings, in which they were effected, itself was linked up to itself, relating and appearing to itself, by means of the essential project of human-reality. What was named in this way, in an allegedly neutral and undetermined way, was nothing other than the metaphysical unity of man and God, the relation of man to God, the project of becoming God as the project constituting human-reality. Atheism changes nothing in this fundamental structure.
    • "The Ends of Man," Margins of Philosophy, tr. w/ notes by Alan Bass. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1982. (original French published in Paris, 1972, as Marges de la philosophie). p. 116
  • The end of man (as a factual anthropological limit) is announced to thought from the vantage of the end of man (as a determined opening or the infinity of a telos). Man is that which is in relation to his end, in the fundamentally equivocal sense of the word. Since always.
    • "The Ends of Man," Margins of Philosophy, tr. w/ notes by Alan Bass. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1982. (original French published in Paris, 1972, as Marges de la philosophie). p. 123
  • What is called "objectivity," scientific for instance (in which I firmly believe, in a given situation) imposes itself only within a context which is extremely vast, old, firmly established, or rooted in a network of conventions … and yet which still remains a context.
    • Limited Inc (1977)
  • As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down.
    • "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Writing and Difference, tr. w/ intro & notes by Alan Bass. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, 1978. p. 285


  • Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: 'here are our monsters', without immediately turning the monsters into pets.
    • Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and other small Seismisms, The States of Theory, ed. David Carroll, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Positions, 1982[edit]

Jacques Derrida (1982), Positions University of Chicago Press, 15 nov. 1982 With interviews with Henri Ronse (p. 1-14), with Julia Kristeva (pp. 15-36), and with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta (p. 37-97)
  • 1) Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive (the a of différance indicates this indecision as concerns activity and passivity, that which cannot be governed by or distributed between the terms of this opposition) production of the intervals without which the "full" terms would not signify, would not function.
    • p. 21
  • Although Saussure recognized the necessity of putting the phonic substance between brackets ("What is essential in language, we shall see, is foreign to the phonic character of the linguistic sign" [p. 21]. "In its essence it [the linguistic signifier] is not at all phonic" [p. 164]), Saussure, for essential, and essentially metaphysical, reasons had to privilege speech, everything that links the sign to phone. He also speaks of the "natural link" between thought and voice, meaning and sound (p. 46). He even speaks of "thought-sound" (p. 156). I have attempted elsewhere to show what is traditional in such a gesture, and to what necessities it submits. In any event, it winds up contradicting the most interesting critical motive of the Course, making of linguistics the regulatory model, the "pattern" for a general semiology of which it was to be, by all rights and theoretically, only a part. The theme of the arbitrary, thus, is turned away from its most fruitful paths (formalization) toward a hierarchizing teleology:... One finds exactly the same gesture and the same concepts in Hegel. The contradiction between these two moments of the Course is also marked by Saussure's recognizing elsewhere that "it is not spoken language that is natural to man, but the faculty of constituting a language, that is, a system of distinct signs … ," that is, the possibility of the code and of articulation, independent of any substance, for example, phonic substance.
    • p. 21
  • 2) "the a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation - in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being - are always deferred. Deferred by virtue of the very principle of difference which holds that an element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces. This economic aspect of différance, which brings into play a certain not conscious calculation in a field of forces, is inseparable from the more narrowly semiotic aspect of différance.
    • p. 28
  • It is also the becoming-space of the spoken chain - which has been called temporal or linear; a becoming-space which makes possible both writing and every correspondence between speech and writing, every passage from one to the other.
    The activity or productivity connoted by the a of différance refers to the generative movement in the play of differences. The latter are neither fallen from the sky nor inscribed once and for all in a closed system, a static structure that a synchronic and taxonomic operation could exhaust. Differences are the effects of transformations, and from this vantage the theme of différance is incompatible with the static, synchronic, taxonomic, ahistoric motifs in the concept of structure.
    • p. 28
  • At the point at which the concept of différance, and the chain attached to it, intervenes, all the conceptual oppositions of metaphysics (signifier/signified; sensible/intelligible; writing/speech; passivity/activity; etc.)- to the extent that they ultimately refer to the presence of something present (for example, in the form of the identity of the subject who is present for all his operations, present beneath every accident or event, self-present in its "living speech," in its enunciations, in the present objects and acts of its language, etc.)- become non pertinent. They all amount, at one moment or another, to a subordination of the movement of différance in favor of the presence of a value or a meaning supposedly antecedent to différance, more original than it, exceeding and governing it in the last analysis. This is still the presence of what we called above the "transcendental signified.
    • p. 29
  • When I say that this phase is necessary, the word phase is perhaps not the most rigorous one. It is not a question of a chronological phase, a given moment, or a page that one day simply will be turned, in order to go on to other things. The necessity of this phase is structural; it is the necessity of an interminable analysis: the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Unlike those authors whose death does not await their demise, the time for overturning is never a dead letter.
    • p. 41-42
  • When I say that this phase is necessary, the word phase is perhaps not the most rigorous one. It is not a question of a chronological phase, a given moment, or a page that one day simply will be turned, in order to go on to other things. The necessity of this phase is structural; it is the necessity of an interminable analysis: the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Unlike those authors whose death does not await their demise, the time for overturning is never a dead letter.
    • p. 42


  • Circumcision, that’s all I’ve ever talked about.
    • "Circumfession." In Jacques Derrida, eds. G. Bennington & J. Derrida, trans. G. Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 70
  • I am one of those marranes who no longer say they are Jews even in the secret of their own hearts.
    • "Circumfession." In Jacques Derrida, eds. G. Bennington & J. Derrida, trans. G. Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 170
  • No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn't understand at all, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language, with this 'relation,' precisely, which is yours.
    • Derrida Jacques, Elisabeth Weber (1995), Points...: Interviews, 1974-1994. p. 115
  • Deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism.
    • Moscou aller-retour. Saint Etienne: De l’Aube, 1995.

The Animal That Therefore I Am, 1997[edit]

Text of Derrida's ten-hour address to the 1997 Crisy conference entitled The Autobiographical Animal. Published in French as L'animal que donc je suis (2006). Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet; translated by David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8232-2790-7
  • No one can deny the suffering, fear, or panic, the terror or fright that can seize certain animals and that we humans can witness. … No doubt either, then, of there being within us the possibility of giving vent to a surge of compassion, even if it is then misunderstood, repressed, or denied, held at bay. … The two centuries I have been referring to somewhat casually in order to situate the present in terms of this tradition have been those of an unequal struggle, a war (whose inequality could one day be reversed) being waged between, on the one hand, those who violate not only animal life but even and also this sentiment of compassion, and, on the other hand, those who appeal for an irrefutable testimony to this pity. War is waged over the matter of pity. This war is probably ageless but, and here is my hypothesis, it is passing through a critical phase. We are passing through that phase, and it passes through us. To think the war we find ourselves waging is not only a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, it is also a necessity, a constraint that, like it or not, directly or indirectly, no one can escape. Henceforth more than ever. And I say “to think” this war, because I believe it concerns what we call “thinking.” The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there.
  • Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal, in this general singular, within the strict enclosure of this definite article (“the Animal” and not “animals”), as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers.
  • There is no Animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single, indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of “living creatures,” whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity. … The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority, it is also a crime. Not a crime against animality, precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals.


  • Amy Kofman: Have you read all the books in here?
    Derrida: No, only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully.
    • Derrida (2003 documentary), referring to his personal library

Quotes about Derrida[edit]

  • Derrida’s work emerged from the tradition of Husserl and Heidegger, and although it has proved catching in some circles, it is not easily assimilated by people used to normal expressions of thought.
  • Contrary to the claims of Derrida’s more careless critics, the passion of deconstruction is deeply political, for deconstruction is a relentless, if sometimes indirect, discourse on democracy, on a democracy to come. Derrida’s democracy is a radically pluralistic polity that resists the terror of an organic, ethnic, spiritual unity, of the natural, native bonds of the nation (natus, natio), which grind to dust everything that is not a kin of the ruling kind and genus (Geschlecht). He dreams of a nation without nationalist or nativist closure, of a community without identity, of a non-identical community that cannot say I or we, for, after all, the very idea of a community is to fortify (munis, muneris) ourselves in common against the other. His work is driven by a sense of the consummate danger of an identitarian community, of the spirit of the “we” of “Christian Europe,” or of a “Christian politics,” lethal compounds that spell death of Arabs and Jews, for Africans and Asians, for anything other. The heaving and sighing of this Christian European spirit is a lethal air for Jews and Arabs, for all les juifs [Jews as archetypal outcasts], even if they go back to father Abraham, a way of gassing them according to both the letter and the spirit.
    • John D. Caputo (1997). The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, pp. 231–232
  • Derrida’s special significance lies not in the fact that he was subversive, but in the fact that he was an outright intellectual fraud -- and that he managed to dupe a startling number of highly educated people into believing that he was onto something. […] whatever Derrida is affirming he is also simultaneously denying. From a logical perspective, the only way to read Derrida on his own terms is mentally to insert the phrase “or not” after every one of his statements.
    • Mark Goldblatt, “The Derrida Achievement,” The American Spectator, 14 October 2004
  • Derrida has been assuming all along that the linguistic processes described by Saussure, signification and the differencing of signs, act like forces. If so, then there is no reason for them to stop, and each sign evoked by difference will introduce a new set of differences. But there is no justification for making Saussure's signifiers and differences into forces, and indeed, there is no longer any justification for Saussure's signifiers and differences.
    Justification or no, language for Derrida lacks the stability that Saussure found. Saussure's neat pairings of signifier and signified came from a finite system of distinctive features. By contrast, Derrida's signifier and signified go on and on in endless differencing or differing or deferring (all terms involved in Derrida's own word, différance). And since our minds only work in signs, and nothing is ever fully present in signs, everything becomes flickering and unstable, both present and absent, present and future. It follows therefore that human beings are not the master of language, since the forces of language cannot be mastered. I try to mean, but my meaning is dispersed, divided, at odds with itself. Indeed, I myself am one of my meanings, as much a fiction, as little a stable entity as they. In Terry Eagleton's phrasing, "Because language is the very air I breathe, I can never have a pure, unblemished meaning or experience at all."
    Wow! With one masterful stroke, Derrida seems to have gotten rid of meaning, structures, categories, and mankind itself. Yet the whole argument rests on the idea of signification. As Eagleton sums the position up, "If the theory of signification . . . is at all valid, then there is something in writing itself which finally evades all systems and logics."
    But that's the trouble. It is not valid. Saussure's is finally a flat earth theory. If we consider only how the hearing and the understanding of a word feel to us, if we only introspect, his account has a certain commonsensical appeal. It seems right, just as the horizon seems to define a flat earth. A better linguistics, though, and a great deal of psychological evidence show that Saussure's theory leaves out a world of complexities. The text-active model leaves out all of human activity in interpreting language or the world.
    So does Derrida.
  • Anyone who has heard [Derrida] lecture in French knows that he is more performance artist than logician. His flamboyant style--using free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions--is not just a vain pose (though it is surely that). It reflects what he calls a self-conscious "acommunicative strategy" for combating logocentrism.
    • Mark Lilla, Review of Derrida's Moscou Aller-Retour in The New York Review of Books, June, 1998
  • Oriental religions had proposed the idea of a supreme Being beyond the grasp of language. But Greek thinkers were so wont to identify the real and the conceivable with what can be said that they dared not state there is an unintelligible reality; therefore, they made it into a non-being, thus originating the ontology of absence whose latest versions are Heidegger’s Being (always placed beyond positive existence) and its semiotic child, Derridian difference or ‘trace,’ forever avoiding presence and identify.
    The usefulness of such comparisons show that, for all the novelty of his terminology, the thought structure of Derrida is a philosophical antique with a more theological than epistemological origin -- something that may remain concealed to those who broach deconstruction theory as thought it were just conceptually sharpened semiotics.
  • [T]he tenor of Derridian philosophy shares with Heidegger’s a dangerous proclivity towards the bombastic translations of problems of being and knowledge into strident moral dilemmas. Like the cosmic drama of Being repressed by being in Heidegger, Derrida’s protests against phonocentrism sound more like lay sermonizing than genuine analytical argument. Those manichean dichotomies -- Being verses being, ‘writing’ verses phoné -- betray a religious pattern of thought that leaves Derrida -- for all his reticence regarding eschatology -- infinitely closer to the prophet Levinas than to the cool-headed practice of philosophy as analysis.
    Once removed from this original ‘theological’ and mystical framework, the Derridian ontology of absence makes for an irrationalist philosophy, as was the case with Heidegger. Hence the blatent non-sequiturs. […] Logical jumps are dictated by by the obsessional nature of dramatic philosophy, that is, where the glamour of a manichean grand-guignol (Presence the goodie versus absence the goodie) is substituted for analytics rigour.
  • In most later essays by Derrida, oracular assertion by dint of jocular or half-jocular pun-juggling has come to replace argument almost completely.
  • Saussure sets out to conceptualize a proper way of describing language, not the nature of language to reality. Consequently, he can hardly provide a linguistic pedigree to Derrida’s philosophizing about that relation.
  • Deconstruction, in particular, is a fairly formulaic process that hardly merits the commotion that it has generated. However, like hack writers or television producers, academics will use a formula if it does the job and they are not held to any higher standard (though perhaps Derrida can legitimately claim some credit for originality in inventing the formula in the first place).
  • Those who hurled themselves after Derrida were not the most sophisticated but the most pretentious, and least creative members of my generation of academics. [...] Lacan, Derrida and Foucault are the perfect prophets for the weak, anxious academic personality, trapped in verbal formulas and perennially defeated by circumstances. They offer a self-exculpating cosmic explanation for the normal professorial state of resentment, alienation, dithering passivity and inaction.
    • Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders : Academe in the Hour of the Wolf", first published in Arion, Spring 1991, reprinted in Paglia's Sex, Art and American Culture : New Essays (1992), ISBN ISBN 9780679741015
  • Jacques Derrida, the father of the pseudo-philosophy of "Deconstructionism", has been deconstructed into the next world. He had been conducting a terminal "narrative" with cancer. Well, at least that is the subjective unproven conclusion we have, since, after all, how do we really know that death and cancer exist? [...] Derrida was one of the fathers of this school of Deconstructionism. He was best known for his attack on "logocentrism," that is, on the cruel oppression by rational thinking. (What a great guru for the humanities departments at your university!) He even dismissed Stalin as a logocentrist, which explains I guess why those Gulags and Red Terror ruined what otherwise would be the great blessings of Marxism. In short, we should all seek salvation through resistance to logic. What a great excuse not to do your homework!
    • Steven Plaut, "The Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida," Front Page Magazine, 11 October 2004
  • [John Searle is] right in saying that a lot of Derrida's arguments … are just awful.
    • Richard Rorty, "Essays on Heidegger and Others", (Philosophical Papers II, Cambridge : Cambridge, University Press, 1991), pp. 94-95.
  • Derrida has a distressing penchant for saying things that are obviously false.
    • John Searle (1977). “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida”, Glyph 1:198-208
  • On the face of it, this claim [i.e., Derrida's thesis that speech is privileged over writing] is bizarre. The distinction between speech and writing is simply not very important to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, etc. And of these listed, the only one about whom Derrida offers any evidence for the privileging of the spoken is Plato, who, in Phaedrus, made a few remarks about the impossibility of subjecting written texts to interrogation. Plato points out, correctly, that you can ask questions of a speaking person in a way that you cannot of a written text.
    On Derrida's account, however, it is essential not only to Husserl, but to philosophy, and indeed to "the history of the world during an entire epoch," including the present, that speech should be mistakenly privileged over writing. If Derrida's claim were to be taken at its face value, I believe that a contrary argument could be given equal or even greater plausibility. From the medieval development of Aristotle's logic through Leibniz's Characteristica Universalis through Frege and Russell and up to the present development of symbolic logic, it could be argued that exactly the reverse is the case; that by emphasizing logic and rationality, philosophers have tended to emphasize written language as the more perspicuous vehicle of logical relations. Indeed, as far as the present era in philosophy is concerned, it wasn't until the 1950s that serious claims were made on behalf of the ordinary spoken vernacular languages, against the written ideal symbolic languages of mathematical logic. When Derrida makes sweeping claims about "the history of the world during an entire epoch," the effect is not so much apocalyptic as simply misinformed.
    • John Searle, "Word Turned Upside Down." New York Review of Books, Volume 30, Number 16 · October 27, 1983.
  • [W]e can now give a general assessment of the deconstruction of the distinction between speech and writing.
    1. Derrida's eccentric reading of the history of Western philosophy, a reading according to which philosophers are supposed to be roundly condemning writing, while privileging spoken language, is not grounded on an actual reading of the texts of the leading figures in the philosophical tradition. Derrida only discusses three major figures in any detail: Plato, Rousseau, and Husserl. Rather it seems motivated by his conviction that everything in logocentrism hinges on this issue. If he can treat the features of a suitably redefined notion of writing as definitive of the issues that philosophy has been concerned with —- as definitive of truth, reality, etc.-— then he thinks he can deconstruct these notions.
    2. The proof that speech is really writing, that writing is prior to speech, is based on a redefinition. By such methods one can prove anything. One can prove that the rich are really poor, the true is really false, etc. The only interest that such an effort might have is in the reasons given for the redefinition.
    3. Derrida's redefinition of writing to "reform" the "vulgar concept" is not based on any actual empirical study of the similarities and differences of the two forms. Nothing of the sort. He makes nothing of the fact that speech is spoken and writing is written, for example, or of the fact that, in consequence, written texts tend to persist throughout time in a way that is not characteristic of spoken utterances. Rather, the redefinition is based on a misrepresentation of the way the system of differences functions, and the misrepresentation is not innocent.' It is designed to enable the apparatus of writing, so characterized, to be applied quite generally—to experience, to reality, etc.
    Michel Foucault once characterized Derrida's prose style to me as "obscurantisme terroriste." The text is written so obscurely that you can't figure out exactly what the thesis is (hence "obscurantisme") and then when one criticizes it, the author says, "Vous m'avez mal compris; vous êtes idiot" [roughly, "You misunderstood me; you are an idiot"] (hence "terroriste").
    • John Searle, "Word Turned Upside Down." New York Review of Books, Volume 30, Number 16 · October 27, 1983.
  • Many French philosophers see in M. Derrida only cause for silent embarrassment, his antics having contributed significantly to the widespread impression that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.
    M. Derrida's voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all -- as every reader can very easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do) -- his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.

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