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The Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida

Updated on October 13, 2011

Jacques Derrida was a 20th century French Philosopher in the continental tradition that follows the work of Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. Derrida is most famous for the theory of deconstruction, a criticism of the linguistic philosophy known as structuralism. His work was also in opposition to many of the ideas of Sartre and Derrida was a harsh critic of Sartre's Existentialism. In turn, Derrida was a controversial figure in his own right. His work was especially problematic to analytic philosophers such as Willard Van Quine, many of whom protested his receiving of an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and claimed that his writing was simply "tricks and gimmicks" and did not meet the intellectual rigor and standards that true philosophers should be held to. Despite this, Derrida has remained as one of the most discussed and influential of 20th century philosophers.


Derrida's work is a response to Structuralism, a linguistic theory that claims that communication is made up of a series of signs and their relationship to each other in a network. Philosopher Michel Foucalt was a major proponent of this theory in philosophy. Critic Roland Barthes went as far as to claim that works of literature have no real author, and that they are made up through the use of language that is already built into the novel's structure. This means that works of literature are not the product of the authors imagination but simply their adherence to the structue of language to tell a story based on established tropes.

Derrida found this idea of language to be very troubling. He decided to apply a critique of structuralism that would be a self-conscious critique of itself. Derrida claimed that the signs that we use are not already infused in meaning but were actually arbitrary. Signs are external to the material world. they represent objects and ideas but their relationship to the world that we live in is tenuous. What they have is a relationship that is based on context.

An example would be the word marriage. Marriage has a number of different contexts throughout human history. There can be the marriage of two people or there can be a marriage of ideas. In society there might be polygamous marriage and there might be same sex marriage. The word itself depends on its historical context in order to be interpreted. this symbol has no real relation to anything within the external world. It is a symbol that is interpreted by individuals and carried with it a huge myriad of meanings.

In this way, meaning always refers to another sign. Any one sign has an infinite number of possible meanings that can be attached to it. In order to communicate effectively, this means that we must repress unwanted meanings from the symbols that we use to communicate to avoid miscommunication.

A famous quote of Derrida's is "there is no meaning outside of the text." This has been used to mock him on several occasions but what the phrase actually means is, "there is no meaning outside of the context" This is also what people mean when they say, "context is everything." That exact same words in two very different context could mean drastically different things.


The term photocentrism, was a term that Derrida applied the the differences between spoken speech and the written word. While discussing the act of writing Derrida stated, "all authors are dead authors," meaning that we could only get clarification of meaning through the text because the author was in no way present. When we are watching somebody speak we are closer to the author and what they are saying is more directly related to them.

In order to illustrate the main difference between spoken communication and written communication Derrida used the term différance, a word that is pronounced exactly the same as difference but is not spelled the same. In writing the two words, or symbols, are distinctive from each other but in spoken language they are not.

Derrida proposed that the view that written symbols proposed direct meaning was dangerous for philosophy. His answer to this was Deconstructionist. Deconstructionism is an attempt to find meaning in context by breaking down a text and examining its individual parts. To Derrida all writing was a lie and the only way to get any kind of meaning from it was to try to derive its contextual meaning apart from the simple use of symbols, but the historical and situational uses of these symbols.

Derrida then commented on the relationship between reality and appearance. He realizes that the traditional philosophical view is that the reality of what something is, is more true than its appearance. But Derrida proposed that appearance was actually crucial to the understanding of reality.

Husserl had stated that an expression of a symbol denotes the aspect of meaning that we give a sign. Indication is how that symbol points to something else of context. To Husserl the expression of a symbol was its true meaning. Derrida claimed that the expression is dependent on the indication. A weather vane is an expression, its indication is which way the wind is blowing. This is an example of what Derrida meant.

Derrida's writing is famously difficult because he rejected the idea of writing saying anything meaningful outside of context. As a consequence his work is full of "tricks" that he uses to try and make his meaning more clear. Some find this strategy enlightening but many others accuse him of using these tricks to hid the fact that he has so little to say.


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    • adagio4639 profile image

      Larry Allen Brown 

      3 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      Derrida. The word "obscurantism" comes to mind. I wonder how he'd view that in the "text".


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