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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Divide Opinion as Derrida Did


By Peter Salmon

There have been few thinkers in the history of philosophy who have divided opinion as completely as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). For some, he is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, whose brilliant analyses of the text of philosophy and literature overturned many of the fundamental assumptions of each. To others, he is a charlatan: his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1992 was opposed in a letter to The Times that accused him of not meeting accepted standards of clarity and rigour. His work, the signatories argued, consisted in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns, making French philosophy ‘an object of ridicule’.

Handsome, charismatic, pipe-smoking, Derrida looked like everything a French philosopher should. Pop songs were written about him, films were made in which he played himself, while his aphorisms appeared on T-shirts and coffee mugs: ‘There is nothing outside the text’; ‘To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend’; and ‘I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe.’

He was born in Algeria on 15 July 1930, and his real name was, in fact, Jackie – named after Jackie Coogan, star of the film The Kid (1921), by his Charlie Chaplin-loving parents. Jewish, French, Algerian, Derrida’s identity was complicated, and he strove to apply this complexity to all he touched. Part of thinking like Derrida involves taking those things we take most for granted – such as our identity, such as our language – and looking for unexplored assumptions, contradictions and absences. Thinking like Derrida is a form of close reading, not just of texts, such as those of philosophy and literature, but of everything – art, religion, politics, even ourselves.

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