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Brilliant and controversial, Jacques Derrida is one of the most important thinkers of our time, his considerable body of work having ineradicably altered the landscape of thought in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Best known for having formulated a theoretical analysis which is commonly refered to as "deconstruction", Derrida's writings on language, rhetoric and philosophy interrogate and challenge the formulations of certain basic precepts of Western metaphysics --- precepts such as presence, truth, the position of the subject and nature of identity.
Born in Algiers in 1930 , Derrida immigrated to Paris in his teens to further pursue his studies in philosophy, language and literature, going on after college to earn a graduate a degree in philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superieure and pursue a career in teaching.
His profound impact on contemporary thought began in 1967 with the simultaneous publication of three major works ('Speech and Phenomena', 'Writing and Difference', and 'Of Grammatology') -- works which began to articulate his extensive and radical critique of Western metaphysics; a critique which draws, in part, from the writings of Nietzche, Freud, Heidegger, Marx and Levinas. Since this first publication blitz, Derrida has since gone on to publish over 45 books which have been translated in over 22 languages worldwide. His work has been read and disseminated by a broad range of cultures and disciplines, profoundly influencing fields as varied and disparate as art, literature, law, ethics, music, history, architecture and fashion.
Politically active and deeply committed to furthering the course of social justice, Derrida has speculated that his early childhood experiences of intense anti-semitism which, among other things, led to his expulsion from the Algerian public schools at an early age, prompted him to devote his life work to rethinking positions of racism, power, and oppression using his sharp and surprising analytical skills to address the ways in which they overtly and covertly operate. As such his work has opened up spaces of critical thought to a wide variety of cultures and forces informing a wide range of human rights movements.
A lifetime of teaching in both Europe and abroad, (Sorbonne, Ecole Normale Superieure, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Johns Hopkins University, Yale, The New School, NYU, UC Irvine) extensive publications and frequent activist interventions (France, Czechoslovakia, South Africa and the U.S.) have led him to become one of the most cited and influential contemporary intellectual figures. Paradoxically, a person who is at once both extremely private and extremely public, Derrida is one of the most important, profound and intriguing thinkers living today.
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Although Jacques Derrida may be justly described as a philosopher, his brainchild Deconstruction might best be defined as a stance, a challenge to philosophy. Reality -- as we have been taught since Plato -- is understood by asking "What is...?" And pursuing a line of inquiry whose end result is a stable realization, such as: "I think, therefore I am." Other philosophers might counter this idea, approve it, or modify it, but underneath their arguments lies a shared assumption that what is true can be decisively revealed.
Derrida seeks to destabilize these inherited assumptions. We think, therefore we question, he counters. Even Plato's own thinking contains such challenges to its own theses. As centered and orderly as Plato's arguments may appear, there is an element of no less revealing conflict built-in. Locating that shadow is where deconstruction finds its meaning.
For example: Plato, in his parable of Phaedrus, denounces the written word as being inferior to words which are spoken by an actual human being. (This is a principle which to this day upholds much of our civilization. In a court of law, written evidence is easily outweighed by testimony that is spoken under oath.) Yet Plato advances this time-honored idea in writing, observes Derrida: a contradiction that complicates the decisiveness of Plato's assertion about the primacy of the spoken word.
Similarly, Derrida takes issue with the way in which much of metaphysical thought is founded on dynamic oppositions of good and evil, interior and exterior, Essence and appearance, true and false, life and death.
Derrida views western culture as being pervaded, perhaps inescapably, by metaphysics, by searches for truth whose point of origin is singular and lies outside the realm of the empirically knowable. Deconstruction may not provide the escape route -- Derrida asserts that no critique can ever completely escape what it is criticizing -- but a necessary liberation takes root when we resist thinking reality's essence is founded in some truth exterior to its own system.
Applied to literature, theology, politics, Derrida's method is a magnet for controversy. Many assume that by so thoroughly attacking and shaking our Culture's philosophical foundations, we are destroying them. Derrida has often been accused of moral relativism for taking the stance that he has. If knowledge is not always certain, so goes the conventional Wisdom, how can one engage in deconstruction yet continue to function as a moral and Ethical being?
The answer for Derrida is built into the question. Deconstruction resists the tyranny of the easy answer. One is all the more ethically and morally responsible because one is in charge of making a decision and being accountable to that decision. No truth may lie outside one's system for truth making, but that doesn't mean that one can't make moral and ethical decisions - one just must take responsibility for those decisions and not believe them to be preordained or given by a higher power.
As such, deconstruction resists tyranny. Therein arises its moral value, its relevance to the century from which we've just emerged, and its use for the one now emerging.
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