France’s celebrated philosopher Jacques Derrida died at the age of 74 in Paris on 8 October.
His philosophical project of ‘deconstruction’ caught the imagination of the intelligentsia at the end of the twentieth century. As the ideologies first of the left and then the right were disintegrating, Derrida’s philosophy seemed to give a rationale to attempts to ‘think outside the box’ (as the policy-wonks had it). Deconstruction was a method that spread from literary criticism, through cultural studies until it became so ubiquitous that you could buy a ‘deconstructed [ie. rumpled] suit’ in Camden, London, in the 1990s.
Fame came late to Derrida, who laboured patiently in the philosophical school of ‘phenomenology’ - using close description to attempt to get to ‘the things themselves’, without the interruptions of preconceived theoretical frameworks, or the separation of experience into external reality and internal reflection.
His first published work, and introduction to the founding text of the school, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, was three times longer than its subject in 1961. There Derrida’s style of worrying around a topic until it fell apart in your hands was first on show. Husserl, taking a science with an ideal object, geometry, had tried to show that truth was the product of inter-subjective agreement, not correspondence with an objective reality. Though Husserl’s argument is already a retreat from scientific objectivity, its concessions to finality were too much for Derrida, who introduced his celebrated concept of ‘ différance’, writing that ‘the Absolute is present only in being delayed-deferred [différant]’ (1). In other words, there could be no objective answer settled on, because it would always elude definition.
Différance was important for Derrida, because it meant that definitions were always elusive. He was not wrong. Theory is grey, life is ever green. But Derrida did not just insist on the fluidity of reality, which would have been useful, but also on the impossibility of a theoretical appropriation of reality, at which point it descended into a radical scepticism. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon said, the sceptics and me agree at the outset, that everything should be doubted; but for me discovery follows doubt, whereas for them, doubt is the beginning and the end. Derrida occasionally hinted that a work of reconstruction should follow the deconstruction, but it never happened.