Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2006
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

1. The development of deconstruction

Jacques Derrida was born a French citizen in El-Biar, Algeria, in 1930. In 1942 he was expelled from school by a rector who took it upon himself to lower the maximum number of Jewish students who could study at the lycée. In the 1950s Derrida studied philosophy in Paris, completing his dissertation for the diplôme d’études supérieures from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1954. This was eventually published as Le probléme de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl (The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy) in 1990. Derrida’s first major publication, ‘L’Origine de la géométrie’ de Husserl (Edmund Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’) appeared in 1962. It was in this work that he began to articulate the task of a deconstruction.

Husserl conceived of phenomenology as a transcendental investigation of eidetic structures that could be made fully present to consciousness. Despite the ‘static’ character of its descriptions, phenomenology was also supposed to account for the origins of these structures. In eventually turning to this ‘genetic’ dimension of phenomenological inquiry, Husserl discovered that at least some ideal essences (such as those that comprise the subject matter of geometry) can only exist (and hence can only be available for phenomenological inspection) insofar as they are constituted in writing. The reason for this is not simply that such idealities must be accessible, in principle, to any intentional subject whatsoever, but that they are essentially public objects which could not exist apart from a traditionary medium that functioned in the peculiar way that written texts do, namely, as ‘monuments’ of ‘buried intentions’ that need to be ‘re-animated’ by those who encounter them. In his commentary on Husserl’s discussion of this point, Derrida highlights the paradoxical role that writing thereby comes to play within phenomenology. Husserl never abandoned the idea that phenomenology could transform philosophy into a rigorous science by grounding it in an originary source of evidence capable of being accessed via the immediate presence of consciousness to itself. Yet in working through this very promise, Husserl had discovered that, at least in certain cases, there could be no such experience of self-presence without a detour through the irreducibly opaque medium of writing.

In his 1967 book La Voix et le phénomène (Speech and phenomena), Derrida argues that the inevitable recourse to writing is a constitutive principle without which there could be no such thing as the ‘living present’, the supposedly pre-signifying stratum of experience to which Husserl thought it was both possible and necessary for phenomenology to return. Derrida’s argument can be thought of as a radicalization of Kant’s critique of the ‘paralogisms’ of pure reason (see Kant, I. §8). Kant showed, contra Descartes, that, although the representation of myself as a thinking subject must implicitly accompany all my other representations, I cannot have an immediate intellectual intuition of myself as a thing that thinks. Hence the existence of my soul is indemonstrable. Against this conclusion, Husserl claimed that by carrying out a series of ‘reductions’ (or epochés), I can in fact attain some sort of pre-discursive intuition of myself as a ‘transcendental ego’. Crucial to this argument, Derrida shows, is a distinction that Husserl draws in his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1900–1) between ‘expression’ (Ausdruck) and ‘indication’ (Anzeichen). Everything that pertains to the ‘written’ character of signs (in the sense that Husserl eventually gives to the concept of writing in his late fragment on the origin of geometry) is supposed to belong to indication alone. Hence if it is possible for signs to function in a purely expressive (i.e. non-indicative) manner, then the intrinsic expressibility of the subject’s pre-discursive awareness would not require the detour through the public medium of writing in the way that access to geometrical idealities do. But Derrida points out that in order for any sign to function as a sign it must be iterable, that is, repeatable. Thus even an expressive sign must be capable of retaining its sense even when it is no longer accompanied by its original animating intention. In particular, the very sense of the expression ‘I am’ presupposes the possibility of my own mortality. Indeed, the mere fact that it is necessary for me to have recourse to expression to represent myself to myself implies that my actual death is a condition for the possibility of my being able to say that I am. From this Derrida concludes that there is no pure experience of self-presence. Both the ‘I think’ and the ‘I am’ derive their sense from the irreducible reference that they make to alterity – in the form of those ‘others’ to whom my representation of myself is legible – and to my own death.

It is here that Derrida’s argument goes further than Kant’s critique of the paralogisms. Kant merely showed that each of us is subject to an epistemic limitation (our incapacity for intellectual intuition) that makes it impossible for us to know what we are as things in themselves. In this way he leaves open the metaphysical possibility that each of us is, after all, a self-contained monad (though we cannot know this). By contrast, Derrida takes Husserl to have shown, albeit unwittingly, that we cannot even think of ourselves as monads, since the detour through what Derrida calls différance is constitutive of the ‘I think’ itself. Hence, not only does the subject’s ability to determine its own existence in time depend on the intuition of objects of outer sense (the point that Kant underscores in his Refutation of Idealism; see Kant, I. §7), but the subject’s very ability to think its formal identity with itself (I = I) presupposes a relation to alterity and death. In calling this relation différance, Derrida intends to indicate that the subject’s constitutive relation to alterity and death is both ‘spatial’ (it is that which differs from the subject) and ‘temporal’ (it is that which perpetually postpones the fulfilment of the subject’s immediate presence to itself).

Husserl’s simultaneous discovery and disavowal of phenomenology’s necessary recourse to writing represents, for Derrida, the ‘closure’ of the ‘metaphysics of presence’. In De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967), Derrida argues that the metaphysics of presence – which he also refers to as ‘logocentrism’, and, later, as ‘phallogocentrism’ – has dominated European philosophy from Plato to the present. Part two of this book illustrates this thesis via a close reading of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (see Rousseau, J.-J. §2), a work that Derrida situates between Plato’s Phaedrus (in which Socrates recounts a myth about the invention of writing) and Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830) (in which alphabetical writing is said to be intrinsically more intelligible than hieroglyphic writing). In the early 1970s, Derrida returned to these other two canonical texts in La Dissémination (Dissemination) (1972) and Glas (1974).

Citing this article:
Cutrofello, Andrew. The development of deconstruction. Derrida, Jacques (1930–2004), 2006, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DE010-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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