Sunday, October 10, 2004
Paris 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.
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 was a leading intellectual for decades. He is considered the 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 world."
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.
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.
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.
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."