Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2007), born in Algiers, is the founder of the philosophical movement Deconstructionism. Deconstruction is a critical method that attempts "to undo" the logic of antitheses. But his work goes beyond 'deconstruction.'
Despised and belittled by many academics, Jacques Derrida' s work is in
contrast appreciated by artists, writers, students, and the public in
general. Even linguistics genius and professor at MIT, Noam Chomsky,
called Derrida "a charlatan," simply because he couldn't understand some
of Derrida's writing.
Of course Chomsky is a busy personality and couldn't take time to
attempt to learn the language that Derrida employed in his journals,
articles, and books. When I hear IT people talking to each other and
don't understand a single word of what they are saying, let alone the
topic of discussion, I don't dismiss them as "charlatans." I make the
concession that they have their own language and that the use it to
communicate and convey the nuances of information and computer science.
Derrida's work has dismantled many of the assumptions we --ordinary
human beings-- make about accepted 'facts.' Deconstructing binary —also
called polar— oppositions, just to give an example, has helped us
understand that built into these oppositions are hierarchical
assumptions that confer power to one pole over the other. In the
polarities 'male/female,' 'presence/absence,' 'slave/master,'
'black/white,' you can just guess which is favored. Derrida's work
helped us see that binary oppositions structure thought of individuals
within a culture—e.g., Western culture.
But the object to this article is to learn how to understand 'writing,' as expounded by Jacques Derrida.
In Plato's dialogue Phaedrus, the god Thoth, the inventor of writing, is
accused of encouraging mental laziness. This is myth lore invented by
Plato and Socrates, for we know that writing encourages agility of mind.
Rousseau also saw writing as a supplement to speech—as signs. In
contrast, because Francis Bacon --the great Elizabethan courtier and
scholar-- saw speech ("Idols of the Cave") as a barrier to true
knowledge, he went on to write many books. In the end gossip and false
testimony, in particular, gained him a year in the London Tower. The
moral being: beware that speech can be more lethal than writing.
As it turned out, today we realize that writing and books have become
the warehouses of wisdom. It is with the written word that wisdom is
created, preserved, and expanded in the different levels of human
endeavor. Even symbolic logic and mathematics need the written word to
lock and secure exact meanings. Scientists use language to put forth
their discoveries, their insights, and to falsify or verify them
Philosopher Jacques Derrida sees in writing-in-general an entire system
that nourishes the human race—archi-écriture. Despite the 'difficult'
language he uses, we can extract some meaning from it, by defining some
of the deconstructionist jargon:
"What we have tried to show in following the connecting thread of the
"dangerous supplement" is that in what we call the real life of these
"flesh and blood" creatures ... there has never been anything but
writing, there has never been anything but supplement and substitutional
significations which could only arise in a chain of differential
relations ... And so on indefinitely, for we have read in the text that
the absolute present, Nature, what is named by words like "real mother,"
etc. have always already escaped, have never existed; that what
inaugurates meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of
To understand fairly the above paragraph, one needs to go back to
Immanuel Kant who distinguished between 'reality' (the world of nature
and objects) and reason and the senses that apprehend reality—or as Kant
call it: the thing-in-itself. According to Kant humans are doomed to
never know the thing-in-itself. At best humans may represent it by the
senses and the categories of the mind.
Much like Kant, Derrida has invented his own language; he uses the word
'supplement,' 'substitutional significations,' 'chain of substitutions,'
as synonyms for the signs with which humans filter, mediate, and
When he refers to reality, he uses 'real life,' 'flesh and blood
creatures,' 'the absolute present, 'nature,' 'real mother,' 'original,'
'the thing itself of immediate present,' and other similar utterances.
Writing then, for Derrida, is a metaphysical concept that guides human
thinking for humans to survive in the world of nature and man-made
While speech is ethereal and instantaneous, writing lingers and
sequesters the traces of speech and life to bring about the
thing-in-itself: a presence. For Derrida:
"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" '"There's nothing outside the text."