The Guardian — The death of Jacques Derrida

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Philosopher Jacques Derrida Dies at 74
Saturday October 9, 2004 9:01 PM
AP Photo PAR114
Associated Press Writer
PARIS (AP) – World-renowned thinker Jacques Derrida, a charismatic
philosopher who founded the school known as deconstructionism, has died, the French
president’s office said Saturday. He was 74.
Derrida died at a Paris hospital of pancreatic cancer, French media reported,
quoting friends and admirers.
The snowy-haired French intellectual taught, and thought, on both sides of
the Atlantic, and his works were translated around the world.
Provocative and as difficult to define as his favorite subject –
deconstruction – Derrida e modern-day French thinker best known internationally.
“With him, France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary
philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time,”
President Jacques Chirac said in a statement, calling Derrida a “citizen of the
Born to a Jewish family on July 15, 1930, in El Biar, Algeria, then part of
France, Derrida wrote hundreds of books and essays. His reputation was launched
with two 1967 publications in which he laid out basic ideas, “Writing and
Difference” and “Of Grammatology.” Among other works were the 1972 “Margins
of Philosophy” and, more recently, “Specters of Marx” (1993).
Derrida was known as the father of deconstructionism, a branch of critical
thought or analysis developed in the late 1960s and applied to literature,
linguistics, philosophy, law and architecture.
Derrida focused his work on language, showing that it has multiple layers and
thus multiple meanings or interpretations, challenging the notion that speech
is a direct form of communication or even that the author of a text is the
author of its meaning.
Deconstructionists like Derrida explored the means of liberating the written
word from the structures of language, opening limitless textual
interpretations. Not limited to language, Derrida’s philosophy of deconstructionism was then
applied to western values.
The deconstructionist approach has remained controversial, with detractors
even proclaiming the movement dead. So divisive were Derrida’s ideas that
Cambridge University’s plan to award him an honorary degree in 1992 was forced to a
vote which he won.
Critics accused Derrida of nihilism, which he adamantly denied.
“Deconstruction is on the side of ‘yes,’ an affirmation of life,” Derrida
said in an August interview with the daily Le Monde.
Former Culture Minister Jack Lang, who knew Derrida, praised his “absolute
originality” as well as his combative spirit.
“I knew he was ill, and at the same time, I saw him as so combative, so
creative, so present, that I thought he would surmount his illness,” Lang said on
France-Info radio.
Derrida was often named – but never chosen – for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1949, Derrida left Algeria for Paris to further his education, receiving
an advanced degree in philosophy from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure
in 1956. He later taught philosophy at the Sorbonne University from 1960-64
and at the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales from 1984-99.
He also taught in the United States, at the University of California at
Irvine and at Johns Hopkins and Yale universities.
Despite his esoteric path, Derrida said in several interviews that he really
wanted to be a soccer player but wasn’t talented enough.
He refused to confine himself to an intellectual ivory tower, fighting for
such things as the rights of Algerian immigrants in France and against apartheid
in South Africa.
French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres called Derrida
“profoundly humanist,” saying the philosopher spent his final years working for the
“values of hospitality,” particularly between Europe and the Mediterranean.
“He wanted to build an open idea of Europe,” a ministry statement said.
As Derrida grew ill, death haunted him. In a Le Monde interview in August,
Derrida said that learning to live means learning to die.
“Less and less, I have not learned to accept death,” he was quoted as
saying. “I remain uneducable about the wisdom of learning to die.”