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Jean Jacques Derrida: Biography & Philosophy

Instructor: Kristin DeLong
In this lesson, you will learn about the background and philosophy of Jean Jacques Derrida. Derrida challenged Western philosophy with the development of his theory of Deconstruction.

Life and Background

Jean Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher born on July 15th, 1930, in Algeria, to a Sephardic Jewish family. He grew up when Jews were openly discriminated against, which led to his expulsion from Lycee de Ben Aknoun (high school) courtesy of a rule limiting the Jewish attendance to less than ten percent of the student population.

While he did eventually enroll in Lycee Emile-Maupas, he dropped out because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere. He eventually returned to the Lycee de Ben Aknoun and stayed until he was seventeen. It is believed that his discrimination led to his interest in the center and the marginalized, concepts we will discuss in this lesson.

After the end of World War II, Derrida began his studies of philosophy, moved to France, and attended the prestigious 'Ecole Normale Sup'erieure on his second attempt at entry in 1952. It was during his presentation in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University that he challenged Western philosophy with his debut of the concept of Deconstruction.

During his lifetime, Derrida published some fifty books and many papers and divided his time between teaching in Paris and the U.S. Derrida died in Paris at the age of 74. He was a victim of pancreatic cancer.

Derrida's Philosophy: Deconstruction

Derrida believed that all Western thought since Plato bore a strong desire for a center -- a fixed origin, a Truth. He found this idea to be problematic because a center attempts to exclude all other possible meanings. He believed that meaning is unstable and that all possibilities should be considered, and his beliefs apply to philosophy, literature, and politics.

Deconstruction focuses on binary opposites within a text; in other words, two terms that are opposite in meaning, such as men versus women. Deconstruction seeks to show readers how both terms are related, that one is the center, and the other is marginalized. In this case, men are the center, which leaves women marginalized.

Next, Deconstruction subverts the ranks to make a reading mean the opposite of what it was intended to mean; in this case, women assume the central position. Finally, a 'free play' is achieved in which readers realize that either meaning is equally possible. In this way, we determine that all meaning of a work is unstable.

Deconstruction at Work

Let's analyze a passage from the following sample poem:

His rose grew a thorn

and stung him deeply

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