[Paleopsych] NYT: What Derrida Really Meant

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What Derrida Really Meant
NYT October 14, 2004

Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger,
Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of
74, will be remembered as one of the three most important
philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last
100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in
more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers,
theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists,
historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even
architects have found in his writings resources for
insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the
arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no
thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.

To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr.
Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable
that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to
one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not
conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the
density and complexity characteristic of all great works of
philosophy, literature and art. Like good French wine, his
works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more
they reveal about our world and ourselves.

What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he
brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists
and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary
interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of
careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western
philosophical, literary and artistic traditions - from
Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the
grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new
possibilities for imaginative expression.

Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the
often cited but rarely understood term "deconstruction."
Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting
sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has
entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the
implications of deconstruction are quite different from the
misleading clichés often used to describe a process of
dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of
deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary,
psychological, social, economic, political or religious -
that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained
through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating
something, something else inevitably gets left out.

These exclusive structures can become repressive - and that
repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent
of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does
not disappear but always returns to unsettle every
construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian
Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake
of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the
left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the
danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into
diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or
evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive
structures, which grew directly out of the Western
intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return
with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways
to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make
life worth living, he developed a vision that is
consistently ethical.

And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right
have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most
influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal
writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the
importance of preserving differences and respecting others
to forge an identity politics that divides the world
between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida's
mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and
straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a
culture of political correctness, his self-styled
supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging
for more than two decades and continue to frame political

To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious
nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western
society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute
value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue,
he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To
follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the
slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably
leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

This is an important criticism that requires a careful
response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida
does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude
our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must
forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles
without which we cannot live: equality and justice,
generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to
recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent
contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our
actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to
constant questioning and continual revision. There can be
no ethical action without critical reflection.

During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became
preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his
contribution might well be most significant for our time.
He understood that religion is impossible without
uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father
of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known
or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped
by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on
their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not
always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by
providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great
religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they
all call certainty and security into question. Belief not
tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in
networks of communication and exchange, there is an
understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and
certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure,
for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious
fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True
believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian -
cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear
apart our world.

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to
blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of
belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to
respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex
world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can
keep the future open.

In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings
and exchanges. In conversation, he listened carefully and
responded helpfully to questions whether posed by
undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely
of his time to several generations of students.

But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my
family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to
dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He
insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived
at his home he presented our children with carnival masks.
At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years,
when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his
work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement
as well as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques
Derrida wrote eloquently about the gift of friendship but
in these quiet gestures - gestures that served to forge
connections among individuals across their differences - we
see deconstruction in action.

Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams
College and a visiting professor of architecture and
religion at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of
"Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without


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